Witness for the West End production

Who needs a script when a transcript can be even more dramatic? Robert Butler reports on how art now imitates courtroom life

Imagine a police officer cautioning you with the words that anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence in a current West End show. The warning might be timely.

This week a new play called Gross Indecency opens at the Gielgud, based on the trials of Oscar Wilde. Last night The Colour of Justice, the dramatised reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, finished its West End run. Excerpts from it have been used on Channel 4 News, the Nine O'Clock News, News At 10 and Newsnight. It has been the highest profile play in Britain and not a word of it has been made up - unless you count the evidence of some of the witnesses.

The possibilities for other stage productions, based on current verbatim transcripts, look endless. There's the Starr Report, the BSE inquiry, the "tainted blood" trial in Paris and the forthcoming Bloody Sunday inquiry. The lawyers involved are engaging with the most urgent and topical subjects and delivering some of the most searching dialogue. Perhaps agents should hang round barristers' chambers or check the pile of unsolicited scripts to see if one has a pink ribbon tied round it.

Gross Indecency is an off-Broadway hit that stars Michael Pennington as Oscar Wilde and Clive Francis as his lawyer, Sir Edward Clarke. The playwright Tony Kushner wrote that the success of Gross Indecency in New York struck a nerve not just within the "habitually overexcitable" art world, but with the "habitually sobersided and ungenerous as well". The New York Review of Books says that in Moises Kaufman's new play, Wilde "comes closer to being a tragic figure than one expects to find in the contemporary theatre".

For Kaufman the idea started with reading 10 pages from the transcript of the Wilde trials. "An artist was defending his work in a court of law," Kaufman told me. "I was struck by how clearly Wilde had thought through these issues." He was also struck by the simple idea that this had happened. "Reality is usually so much more interesting," he says, giving the example of the name of the hotel where Lord Alfred Douglas stayed when he fled to Paris. "It's the Hotel des Deux Mondes. If I'd made it up, the hotel of two worlds, people would have said you can't do that!"

Every transcript has its line that you couldn't make up. In The Colour of Justice Inspector Groves was challenged over the disappearance of his "fairly comprehensive" notes. Counsel for the inquiry asked: "There was a reference to you having a clipboard at the same?" Groves replied: "I still have the clipboard. I don't have any notes."

When John Major explained his position in Half the Picture, the stage version of the Arms to Iraq inquiry, he hit on a formula of rare metaphysical beauty: "Something I was not aware had happened turned out not to have happened."

In The Trials of Oz, Geoffrey Robertson QC's adaptation of the Oz magazine trial, the prosecution's case for obscenity focused on a cartoon of Rupert Bear with an erection. Treasury counsel asked one of the expert witnesses, the lateral thinker Edward de Bono: "Why is Rupert Bear equipped with a large organ?" De Bono replied: "What size do you think would be natural?"

Ever since Aeschylus had the goddess Athene place the fate of Orestes in the hands of a jury of mortal men in The Oresteia, court room drama has been a mainstay of Western theatre. But there has been a shift in the last 50 years from the courtroom drama that is fictionalised by playwrights to the courtroom drama that is a transcript edited down by a director, barrister or journalist.

Terence Rattigan took the case of George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old cadet who had been expelled from naval college for allegedly stealing a postal order, as the basis for The Winslow Boy. In his play Rattigan omits the detail that the Archer-Shees were a Roman Catholic family. In 1908 this was a significant factor in the prejudice surrounding the case. In 1945 Rattigan discarded that theme in favour of others.

The 1955 Broadway play Inherit the Wind dramatised the famous Scopes trial of a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who had taught the theory of evolution. The authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, took huge liberties with the story. "Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism," they stated in the preface. "It is theatre."

In the new genre of verbatim transcripts, journalism is theatre. The Colour of Justice has played night after night while the same story has been on the front pages. "We thought that by doing it on TV, and then the report coming out, that would be the end," says Jeremy Clyde, who plays Michael Mansfield QC. But the main difference in the audience's reaction has been when they moved from one venue to another. "At the Tricycle," says Clyde, "people came down from the leafy hills of Hampstead and were shocked to learn that the police were racist. When we got to Stratford East the audience were more vocal. They weren't shocked at all that the police were racist. You could hear the anger."

"The granddaddy of all this," says Nicolas Kent, director of The Colour of Justice, "is Eric Bentley's Are You Now or Have You Ever Been ...?" This dramatised documentary, produced at the Bush in 1977, used the transcripts from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings during McCarthyism. The next year Jon Blair and Norman Fenton adapted the The Biko Inquest about the murder of the South African student leader in 1977, which played at the Riverside in 1984 with Albert Finney as the QC Sydney Kentridge. Recently it has been the Tricycle Theatre, with Half the Picture, Nuremberg and Srebrenica, that has become the transcript theatre, specialising in tribunals.

Now Kent is inundated with suggestions from Malawi to Israel. Top of the list is the BSE inquiry. "One MP has told me that it is quote unquote riveting." Kent's first attempt at transcript theatre came when he was at Oxford. Each evening, during The Romans in Britain trial in 1982, they staged the day's proceedings in Oxford. They attended the trial on each of the four days, edited the transcript on the train from Paddington, and performed it in the evening. None of these spirited efforts will be necessary when cameras are allowed into court. Geoffrey Robertson told me that any dramatised reconstruction is "second best". The absence of TV cameras - particularly in a public inquiry - is simply "ridiculous".

On stage, though, verbatim dialogue has its own appeal. It feels unmediated. It has an artlessness that connects it to the broader tradition of "oral history". The American director and playwright Emily Mann wrote Execution of Justice about the trial that followed the murder of George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and his openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. When you consider this play in relation to her others (which includes Greensboro - A Requiem about the murder of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators, and Still Life, about the reactions to the Vietnam war from an ex-marine, his wife and his mistress) you understand why Mann puts herself in a tradition of "giving voice to the voiceless".

The idea that verbatim dialogue, or a dramatised reconstruction, gets us closer to the truth is itself one more illusion. In Gross Indecency Moises Kaufman combines the transcripts with quotes from newspapers, witnesses, autobiographies and biographies. There's even a fictional character, a modern day academic, who puts the clashes between "discourses" into perspective. Kaufman also points up the way the actors add a new layer of interpretation. He relishes this conundrum. "If a company of actors witnesses a trial and if they are great mimics, and if they went away and portrayed exactly what they saw, that would still be a fictional account of the trial."

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