There are moments in history when plays write themselves and all we have to do is bear witness. Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, believes this passionately and with good reason. A number of the most powerful dramatic experiences in recent memory seem to have materialised effortlessly within the walls of his Kilburn enclave, the pay-off for a rare commitment to simply show the public things it usually never sees. In 1994, he staged reenactments from the Scott Inquiry into the Arms to Iraq affair, [Ital]Half the Picture. There followed two reconstructed war crimes tribunals, [Ital]Nuremberg and [Ital]Srebrenica. From tonight, for one month, the show is called [Ital]The Colour of Justice - an edited version of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, ordered by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw and conducted by Sir William Macpherson.
The truth is always shocking. With [Ital]Half the Picture, the frisson of mischievous delight caused by seeing actors showing the political elite at their embarrassed, squirming worst was tempered by hearing the verbatim language of govermental duplicity. The manner with which the captured Nazi High Command denied their guilt in [Ital]Nuremberg had members of the audience screaming out in rage. [Ital]Srebrenica, based on the Rule 61 Hearings against Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at the Hague, caused ugly scenes during discussions. In the case of anything related to Stephen Lawrence, a quiet night out at the theatre is not an option.
[Ital]The Colour of Justice raises issues that are uncomfortably close to home. The title is harder hitting than the inquiry's terms of reference: "matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 to date". As Kent admits: "The case touches the whole simmering race argument in this country. It is nearer people's everyday experience. It hurts people personally more." It hurts the Lawrences personally most, but the family has, crucially, indicated that it is not opposed to the production.
The justification, as before, is the need to provide the public with a clearer overview than that offered by contemporaneous media coverage - a piecemeal approach made patchier by the disallowance of TV cameras at public inquiries. Anyone wanting a synopsis of events will be well served: the failure to give any first-aid to the victim, to follow-up leads, to make arrests, to keep notes, to conduct adequate internal inquiries - the depressing details spanning three abortive investigations are all there.
The validity of this fourth reconstruction might appear self-evident, especially since the inquiry's findings are due to be published in a matter of weeks. But given the huge controversy surrounding the case of Stephen Lawrence - the inquiry owes its existence to the perceived systematic failure of the Metropolitan police to bring the murdered teenager's killers to justice - nothing can be assumed. The theatre cannot afford to make mistakes.
Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian journalist responsible for editing all the previous projects except [Ital]Srebrenica, looks unlikely to. He spent three months last year extracting one per cent of material from a small forest's worth of paper, while commuting to and from work by bus. Almost 11,000 pages of transcript have been whittled down to a hundred pages of playscript. Fifty-six days of evidence-giving - a welter of allegations, admissions and rebuttals - have been condensed into a two and half hours of drama.
But theatre, especially one as intimate as the Tricycle, creates a shift of emphasis, intensifying the emotional involvement of the audience. On the one hand, this creates an opportunity for a shared experience: "The fact that you are sitting there with strangers, all feeling a common indignation, a common passion, is immensely strengthening," Kent argues. "It restores theatre's ancient role as part of the democratic process." On the other hand, there is the risk that the increased sense of involvement may impede greater understanding: watching police officers on the rack could simply become a spectator sport.
Richard Norton-Taylor is anxious to avoid that: "The practical incompetence of the police is shown, as is the thread of racism, conscious or unconsious, that lies behind it. There's also a hint of corruption. The language that many of the police witnesses use often damns them." However, he insists: "This shouldn't turn into a pillorying of the police. It would be wrong if it turned into some form of medieval entertainment."
He is confident that, though by definition partial, the piece is not unfairly biased. He even worried that literalness itself might be deemed unjust: "Aside from the fact that very few of the sentences make grammatical sense, I wondered whether it was fair to set down in stone remarks made by the police while being questioned," he explains. "I thought perhaps these people might be singled out and demonised. But I realised that they stay pretty anonymous."
The exchanges lifted range from the immediately disturbing to those that cast the witnesses in a more sympathetic light. The police are shown blatantly contradicting themselves, and the sinister repeated refrain of "I don't remember" echoes the non-cooperation of the five chief suspects (only
one of whom, Jamie Acourt, is featured). Yet against that, there are other remarks to take into consideration - a reference to a birthday card delivered by one of the family liaison officers, say, or the admission of racial prejudice by a bystander who went out of his way to help the investigation.
Kent believes that [Ital]The Colour of Justice has all the hallmarks of great drama: "It has intellectual rigour, flashes of humour, emotional conflicts, and an important quality of mystery and ambiguity." Some of the more evasive responses recall the civil servant-speak of [Ital]Half the Picture, while some of the slip-ups might be termed farcical were it not for the tragic circumstances. At one point, Michael Mansfield QC, Counsel for the Lawrence family, referring to a corrupt officer known only as XX jokes: "This is becoming like a Pinter play with surreal references".
In a Pinter play, though, there is a wide scope for interpretation. An air of menace habitually surrounds those circling questions and answers. Here, though, the onus falls on the actors not to overplay any ambiguity. There is a responsibility to represent the characters faithfully - the method is to "inhabit" rather than imitate. Sitting in on rehearsals upstairs at the Tricycle, it becomes clear that those playing the police witnesses have the hardest task, despite the vast number of lines delivered by the lawyers.
Both Jeremy Clyde, who is playing Mansfield, and James Woolley, playing Edmund Lawson, Counsel to the Inquiry, met their real-life counterparts. Mansfield was by far the more theatrical of the two - but the sincerity of neither was in doubt. By contrast, those playing the police had no access to the originals and have had to rely on tapes and intuiton, building up the body language through the words. How much their characters are performing (many were accused of `going through the motions'), is, though, one of the implicit unresolved questions of the inquiry.
At one point, Mark Penfold, who plays William Illsley - formerly Detective Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation into Lawrence's murder - asks if he can rattle through his scene with Mansfield at twice the speed, in order not to appear to be weighing up each response. "It can feel as though you are doing far too much or commenting on your character. But if you play it totally neutrally, that's not how it happened, either - the police got very rattled when accusations were made."
Likewise Tim Woodward, playing Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston, has a spot of bother reading out the formal apology to Neville Lawrence. "You've got to be really careful with that character," Kent urges. "If you're not, you're patronising him. He's a man with limited sensitivities but he's got to think he's being enormously sensitive."
There is no doubting the sensitivity of Nicolas Kent and his team, but it a sensitivity that carries clout. Some good may come of [Ital]The Colour of Justice. "Stephen Lawrence's murderers are not going to be brought to justice any more than Karadzic and Mladic are," says Kent, "but at least what happened is being rehearsed in public, and the wrong done to the Lawrences by the people who killed their son, the police and society is aired. That must be a healing process."
`The Colour of Justice', Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (0171-328 1000) previews from tonight, to 6 Feb
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies