Madame Bovary, Lyric Hammersmith, London<br></br>Justifying War, Tricycle, London<br></br>True West, Old Vic, Bristol

Unsettling, ambitious, bold
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The Independent Culture

What really leaps out at you from Justifying War, subtitled Scenes From The Hutton Inquiry? Well, watching this new addition to the Tricycle's series of judicial docudramas, one is first struck by the undramatic nature of Lord Hutton's static and bureaucratically intricate proceedings. Then you slowly come to accept the house style is rightly subdued. The audience is a fly-on-the-wall in what looks like a bland office in Nicolas Kent and Charlotte Westenra's co-staging of the Inquiry, which has been condensed into two and half hours by the journalist-cum-playwright Richard Norton-Taylor using verbatim transcripts. You're looking at a carpeted room furnished with desks, computer screens, box files, and (mostly) men in suits asking and answering questions. The room feels studiously impersonal. Voices are never raised. Sometimes the only visible movement, apart from a witness's lips, are the stenographer's flickering fingers.

At the same time, this is a courtroom drama with a great deal hanging on it, with every word and tiny gesture up for scrutiny. After all, Justifying War is recreating a top-level investigation that, controversially, has not been televised and is delving into not only the apparent suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly but also the possible "sexing up" of the government's Iraq dossier. The witnesses selected here include Andrew Gilligan, Alastair Campbell and Geoff Hoon, though not Tony Blair.

Kent knows of what he directs for he sat in on Lord Hutton's sessions at the Royal Courts of Justice, and some of his actors squeezed in too. None of the cast are doing impersonations as such, but they clearly intend to capture crucial details of individuals' behaviour. The resulting portrayals are all richly ambivalent rather than simplistically judgemental, while capturing some mannerisms sharply enough to raise the odd delighted or cynical laugh of recognition.

The Right Honourable Lord Hutton, played by James Woolley, is genteel but sharp-witted, looking over the top of his spectacles. One may just discern glimmers of irony when he has to push for a clear, concise answer. William Chubb's Gilligan speaks assertively but quickly, perhaps nervously. Sometimes he seems distinctly cavalier, but then he is more accurate than Kelly was regarding the time of their key meeting (producing a small expenses receipt to prove his point). David Michaels' Campbell looks generally cool-headed when questioned about his input into the dossier and his complaints about BBC coverage, but his finger insistently stabs the desk. Kenneth Bryans' Hoon is sullen and hunched while Andrew Mackinlay MP - accused by some of giving Kelly a hard time - comes out looking like an endearingly frank and irrepressible idealist (embodied by Roland Oliver).

This production is problematic. The proceedings can seem arid and bewildering as the witnesses are shown numerous documents referred to as CAB/11/17, DOS/2/7 etc. One strains to read these as they flash up on TV monitors. The edited version of the Inquiry is obviously incomplete, and the piece might have been stronger if Kent and co had taken longer and included the cross-examinations. Beyond that the theatrical vehicle is troubling in being akin to the real-life content in this case. Hutton's job is, fundamentally, to discover the truth, the whole truth and who has been damagingly economical with the truth. What's more, no stage actor, however good, can play the actual witnesses with complete accuracy. This is surely dodgy ground when some of the protagonists' careers (if not their lives) could be on the line.

That said, Norton-Taylor's extracts raise far-reaching ethical questions about how Whitehall and the press interact, about the standard of BBC reporting, about the protection of journalists' sources, and about whether Blair was justified in going to war. The final scene, where Mrs Kelly (Sally Giles) speaks plainly of her husband's exhausted and incommunicative last days, suddenly brings home the heartbreaking personal tragedy.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert's eponymous heroine Emma can only dream of being a glittering Parisian belle, socialising with the rich and powerful. She ultimately determines to take her own life because she is so disappointed with her dull marriage to a country doctor and is coldly ditched by her lovers. Emma is a topical heroine for modern times in that she craves glamour and shops herself into ruinous debt. This classic novel also seems to be begging for a stage adaptation in that she is a histrionic creature, criticised for her "theatrics".

Shared Experience specialise in portraying the frustrated passions of 19th-century heroines, their style slipping between naturalism and intensely physical expressionism. So Fay Weldon's adaptation is in good hands with director Polly Teale. This production has beautiful period detail, set in a grey panelled breakfast room, with just a hint of nightmare about its hidden doors.

Amanda Drew, as Emma, exudes surging sexual energy shot through with desperate guilt and egocentric brattishness as she swirls in her hooped skirt and snipes at her spouse, Adrian Schiller's surprisingly sympathetic and humorous Charles. Weldon's take on the book - making Emma's final confession the core extended scene, punctuated with flashbacks - renders the marital showdown too protracted and the love affairs sketchy. There are clumsy moments, but the ecstatic violence of Drew's erotic struggles with Simon Thorp's Rodolphe is unsettlingly ambiguous and bold. Worth catching for Drew's soaring defence of love over loyalty and Schiller's desperately hurt then hardening anger.

All of this week's plays refuse to offer a neat conclusion. Whether one rival brother is going to kill the other hangs in the balance at the end of True West. En route, Sam Shepard's scenario can seem unbelievably neat in its inversions as the wild drunk, Lee, elbows his hardworking brother Austin out of his Hollywood screenwriting job.

However, this black comedy is fascinatingly self-referential, with obviously autobiographical elements and suggestions that the brothers are one riven man's alter egos. Wilson Milam's production is slick and strongly cast, with Phil Daniels playing the menacing Lee like a devilish, scraggy coyote and Andrew Tiernan's Austin enjoying himself during the final manic and surreal scenes: he races around operating 20 toasters and offering slices of buttered salvation while Daniels trashes the house, clubs the laptop (an update of Shepard's typewriter) to death and hurls knives and forks. Hilariously liberated, though potentially lethal for the front row.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Justifying War': Tricycle, London NW6 (020 7328 1000), to 6 Dec; 'Madame Bovary': Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500511), to 22 Nov; 'True West': Old Vic, Bristol (0117 987 7877), to 22 Nov

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