Nicolas Kent is a busy man. The Artistic Director of the Tricycle is immersed in rehearsals for his new 'tribunal play' Called To Account and is barely coming up for air. Even his answer phone warns of his unavailability. But that is understandable as Called To Account sees Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq questioned under court conditions; it will be one of the most high profile plays the Tricycle has ever produced and has to be right. Matthew Amer snatched a few minutes of Kent's time…
"We only have three weeks to do it [rehearse the play], there are 14 people in it and we're still establishing the text." It is no wonder Kent's time is precious. Budget has affected the time that he can spend bringing the production together and with greater time constraints comes a greater pressure to eke as much as you can out of every minute of rehearsal.
For a man under such pressure, Kent seems remarkably relaxed. There is not a quiver of nervousness in his voice. In fact, he happily jokes about the production and the theatre during the interview. Any preconceptions about arguably Britain's leading proponent of political theatre being as serious as the topics he covers are quickly dispelled.
Called To Account, it seems, has been a labour from the beginning. The three weeks of rehearsals are only the latest in a series of trials that the creation of this piece has encountered. Not least of these is living with a very long subtitle: The Indictment Of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair For The Crime Of Aggression Against Iraq – A Hearing.
The production is of a slightly new style for the Tricycle, which usually uses the transcripts of other formal proceedings to create plays. In the past, both inquiries and war crimes trials have been brought to the stage. Called To Account is a mixture of the two and is not based on any previous hearings. Specifically for the purpose of this play, lawyers Philippe Sands QC and Julian Knowles cross-examined a number of witnesses connected to the decision to move troops into Iraq. Richard Norton-Taylor, long-time collaborator with Kent, has the job of editing 30 hours of transcripts into an evening's play.
"The House of Commons has been totally devalued"
The success of the project, and, in fact, the project happening at all, depended on convincing people connected with the war in Iraq to be questioned by leading lawyers about the events preceding it. This proved a stumbling block because, as Kent points out "initially, people were slightly distrustful about the whole thing". Around the end of November, with few hard-hitting witnesses committed to the project, Kent felt forced to issue an ultimatum: "If we don't get at least four big players in the next ten days, we should call it off". The witnesses subsequently committed in a type of political domino effect; as one signed up it seemed to entice another into the project. Claire Short was followed by Dean Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council in 2002. Then came the "big break", Sir Michael Quinlan, former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, "who is a very respected voice by an enormous amount of people in this country, although not a very well known voice".
But even with the witnesses onboard and the rehearsal period successfully steered, Called To Account, and Kent, will yet have to deal with strict scrutiny. To approach something as emotive and high profile as the war in Iraq from a legal and clinical perspective requires an unbiased attitude. Any hint of sway denigrates from the purpose of the piece. So the fact that there are more witnesses likely to give anti-Blair testimony than pro-Blair could be a cause for concern. Kent sees things differently: "I think if you actually looked at any criminal trial or indictment you would find the prosecution will call more witnesses than the defence. It doesn't really matter that there are more witnesses for the prosecution then there are for the defence because the defence lawyers have a go at all the prosecution witnesses and they can discredit or challenge any of the prosecution witnesses' statements. So I don't think that matters one iota; that won't make it any less fair.”
There are also issues surrounding which lines from the transcript make it into the finished play, how they are spoken and the body language of the actor. Kent is confident that nothing will be misrepresented. "We're trying to reflect, as unbiasedly as possible and as clearly as possible, the issues that arose [in the build up to the Iraq war] and the way both sides handled it," he explains.
It is not, of course, the first time he has been in this position. Previously, Kent and the Tricycle have produced verbatim pieces about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Scott Arms To Iraq inquiry, the Nuremberg trials and the Bloody Sunday inquiry, to name only four. Each has given Kent the chance to shape the action in a way he wants, yet each time he strives to remain fair. "We've always scrupulously tried to reflect what people said and to be as unbiased as possible," he says. "The bias has always come, I suppose, if there is a bias, in us tackling the subjects we've tackled."
The reason the Tricycle has staged so many of these political plays, and is rightly regarded as Britain's leading light for political theatre, is clear when talking to Kent. He is nothing if not passionate about politics and open debate: "I think we live in an open democracy and I firmly and passionately believe in calling our politicians to account. I think public inquiries on the whole deal with very important issues and not enough people see them because they're never televised. Over the last few years – well, the last ten years or so – the House of Commons has been totally devalued because we've had this presidential style of government, so we've not been able to call our politicians to account enough either, and I feel passionately that that's a very important part of the democratic process."
"Something unthinkable happened in the world of show business"
He is not the only one. When tickets for Called To Account went on sale, they sold faster than any other show in the Tricycle's history. But even before then, as Kent puts it, "something unthinkable happened in the world of show business". The entire cast of Called To Account agreed to be in the production without seeing a single word of script. "Some of them didn't even know who they were going to play," Kent says, "and they didn't know the length of the part or anything. People just accepted." Why should such a phenomenon take place? The actors, most of whom have previously worked with Kent on at least one previous political piece, share his passion. "Everyone feels these plays are important; the subject's so important, the subjects are interesting. As an actor it's always very exciting to be in these plays because they get people; the audience who come take part in the discussions and really engage with them."
Far from being just an evening's entertainment, Kent's plays have repercussions outside the theatre. The release of Guantanamo Bay detainee Bisher al-Rawi was quite possibly aided by previous Tricycle play Guantanamo, which was staged both in the Houses of Parliament and on Capitol Hill to draw attention to al-Rawi's plight. "I think those of us who work in theatre hope either spiritually, emotionally or politically to change people's lives a little bit," says Kent. "I know the Stephen Lawrence [play, The Colour Of Justice did do that and I hope Guantanamo played its part in getting some of those people out of Guantanamo."
It is easy to forget that much more happens at the Tricycle aside from political pieces. The theatre has a foundation built in its community, one of the most culturally diverse in Europe. Kent admits to loving his work in that community, putting forward an ethnically mixed bag of productions and working with local children. Every year the organisation works with 12,000 socially excluded youngsters from the local area. After two decades at the Tricycle's helm, some of those children have returned to tell Kent what an effect the work at the Tricycle had on their lives. He is both hugely moved and excited by this, and humble when talking about it.
"What I'm always trying to do is surprise people, I suppose, in a way," says Kent, talking about his general ethos for running a theatre. "I never want to be predictable and so I'm always looking for plays that are from different cultures, plays that reflect London as it is, plays that have a certain amount of political challenge in them and things that are just plain off the wall and will just be a lot of fun." The current West End production of The 39 Steps is one such production that, having thrilled West London audiences, has extended its life in the centre of Theatreland.
As Kent talks about his job, his theatre and his community, it is easy to feel his passion and belief in what he is attempting to do. He is in the very lucky position of truly enjoying his job, and he knows it. "I'm extremely lucky," he smiles. "I get up every morning and I'm going to do something I enjoy. I think a lot of us working in theatre feel like that." He is more than happy to take critical acclaim and awards as they come – in 2006 Bloody Sunday won a Laurence Olivier Award and the Tricycle was given a special award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards to recognise its political work – but sees real success laying with public approval: "The best recognition you can have is people saying 'I came, I saw a play and it made me think' or 'it entertained me gloriously.'"
"This is probably the last theatre I'll run"
Tricycle regulars who are entertained gloriously by Kent's programming and tireless work need not worry for the future as, after more than two decades working in West London, Kent is not planning on going anywhere. He is quite happy just where he is: "I suppose I've found a synergy between what I want to do in theatre and a theatre that has a policy to do exactly that, and I have a board who are very supportive and very tolerant of me." If he was ever to move on, however, there would probably be no shortage of theatres that would happily let him work his magic on their organisation. For them, I am afraid, the news is more pessimistic. "It's enormously exhausting and consuming to run a theatre, because it's a 24 hour a day thing. This is probably the last theatre I'll run,” he laughs, before heading back into another rehearsal to attempt to create another piece of theatrical history.
Called To Account runs at the Tricycle until 19 May.