Theatre Nuremberg: The War Crimes Trial Tricycle, London

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The Independent Culture
This is the 50th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, which established the principle that war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed by persons and not by some vague abstraction called the state. Nicolas Kent's gripping, meticulous reconstruction of parts of it at the Tricycle Theatre opens just as another tribunal gets underway at the Hague to hear cases arising from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

The hope at Nuremberg was "Never Again" but, as Richard Goldstone, the chief prosecutor at the Hague, has said, the reality has been "Again and Again". To bring this home, Kent has commissioned three so-called "responses", short plays dealing with atrocities in Rwanda and Haiti as well as in the former Yugoslavia. On most evenings, one of these acts as a curtain raiser to Richard Norton-Taylor's edited version of the trials. All three were shown to the press and can be seen on Fridays and Saturdays.

These new pieces cannot be said to make distinguished drama, partly because, in various unwieldy ways, the characters are obliged to give the audience a crash course on the recent history of the area. Nuremberg, by contrast, has the inherent theatricality of the court room. Kent, who has watched footage of the trials at the Imperial War Museum, presents the proceedings with a fine sense of atmosphere and period detail, once or twice twisted to artful effect. For example, just as Goering is talking about "the clear separation of the races", you notice a black stenographer quietly entering the court. Not many black faces there in 1946.

The production comes from the same team that created Half the Picture, the Scott Inquiry drama at this address in 1994. Kent has reassembled a number of the actors from that event and seems to be inviting you to notice parallels, notwithstanding massive differences in gravity. When Jeremy Clyde's Rosenberg starts quibbling over the meaning of Ausrotung (extermination) and declares there is a distinction between the extermination of "Jewry" and of "individual Jews", it is tempting to recall the niggling disputes in the Scott Inquiry over whether, say, an effect was incalculable because it was huge or because it was minuscule. And Michael Cochrane's brilliantly sleek, lounging playboy of a Goering conjures up, in his insouciantly arrogant manner before the court, odd memories of Alan Clark.

The acting is very fine. As Field Marshall Keitel, William Hoyland conveys, in his ramrod bearing, the instinctive, inhuman obedience of the Prussian soldier. Thomas Wheatley's Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, answers questions about the mass murder of four million prisoners with the air of someone taking part in an interesting quiz about his pet subject. Having watched the preceding pieces, you can't help but feel that the prosecutors at Nuremberg, where there was documentary evidence and where the culprits had been arrested, faced, in some senses, an easier task than do their equivalents at the Hague. And given that the justice meted out was so clearly victors' justice (the Soviet prosecutor quite undeterred by the thought of his own country's atrocities), you may conclude that the only way to avoid this insidiousness happening again is, as Goldstone argues, through a permanent international war crimes tribunal.

Femi Osofisan's Reel Rwanda, a clumsily constructed piece, but the most distressing of the three " responses", presents the story of a moderate progressive Hutu lawyer (Joan-Ann Maynard) who has seen her likeminded husband and children butchered and the rest of her family disown her. When she's intimidated by a violent crowd, her courage fails her and she obeys their command to hack down her own Tutsi godfather. At that point, she confesses, the humanity died within her and the slide into a career of butchery began. The harrowing aspect of this is that she was persecuted in the first place for being a woman of humanitarian principles. Hers is not a case I would like to try.

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