Edited and compiled by Richard Norton-Taylor & Matt Woodhead
Battersea Arts Centre
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed another inquiry into the Iraq war covering the period from 2001 to 2009. Seven years later, it is about to report.
Richard Norton-Taylor and Matt Woodhead’s play Chilcot recreates a selection of these hearings interspersed with the testimony from some of those who suffered the consequences of that war from Iraqi civilians to the parents of British soldiers.
The documentary drama takes place in James Turner Donnelly’s imaginative but simple traverse setting which is reminiscent of one of the larger House of Commons committee rooms. It evokes a sense of being at the hearing rather than a show.
The inquiry panel sit at a table one end of the traverse questioning witnesses who appear at a table at the other end. Occasionally, the lights shift the focus to the centre where victims of the Iraq war speak eloquently of their experience.
The show opens and closes with an Iraqi woman. Speaking about the day the bombing began, she says she, "felt my world crumbling down".
There are two groups of witnesses. The least helpful are the politicians, generally arrogant and still denying anything was wrong. An exception is Clare Short, the International Development Secretary (1997 to May 2003) who regrets not resigning earlier, claims politicians deceived people and that the "Commons is now a rubber stamp".
Blair (Raad Rawi) is charmingly evasive.
There is an astonishing absurdity to the appearance of Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary 2001 to 2006) and Jeff Hoon (Defence Secretary 1999 to 2005) who seem unprepared for the hearing.
Asked about the provision of clothes, boots and equipment for the troops, Jeff Hoon (Jonathan Coote) vaguely claims that, "boots were more important than clothing". This doesn’t answer the question, but gives him something to say.
Jack Straw (Thomas Wheatley) seems to have no memory of anything the panel reported he had said. In a smiling conclusion to this, he enigmatically quotes an historian as saying, "events which are now long in the past were once in the future."
More informative were the other group of witnesses consisting of civil servants, intelligence chiefs and senior military personnel. They reveal shambolic preparations for war, a tendency for government to frame requirements to what suited America, a fantastic ignorance about the Middle East and a failure to plan for post war Iraq.
One civil servant recalls sitting up in bed having first read the intelligence dossier that took the UK to war, and thinking it was an "unutterable pile of dribble." Among the documents quoted was one from 2001 warning government that war with Iraq would risk generating Sunni-Shia divisions and reinforce "terrorists’ motives and grievances" along with "anger and resentment in the Arab Street".
This second group of witnesses may have been more informative but in general were complacent about the suffering of war. This could become uncomfortable, especially if a witness tried to be funny.
When the head of MI6 Counter Intelligence Operations is asked about the problems of there being too close a relationship between Blair and the Intelligence chiefs, he quips that "they were consenting adults".
Those who went to fight did not appear as witnesses but the play included their testimony. They told of inadequate equipment which resulted in unnecessary deaths, their guilt for handing over detainees to Americans who they knew would subject them to torture.
One soldier speaking about the consequences of this points out that, "we detained 25,000 men and out of twenty-five ISIS commanders, seventeen or eighteen have been through internment in Iraq."
The most moving scene is the testimony of Rose Gentle who fought a long campaign to force the authorities to grant an inquest into the death of her son Gordon. "The inquest concluded it was... unlawful killing" because of the failure of the military to properly equip his vehicle.
The character of Rose is performed by the remarkable actor Sanchia McCormack who gives such moving emotional power to her words that many of the audience were in tears.
The very fine cast of six switches effortlessly between twenty-four characters and different accents. Director Matt Woodhead’s sensitive attention to detail gives us many vivid moments in a play that is not only one of the most powerful in recent years it is also one of the most important.
The performance ends with Nadia, an Iraqi refugee describing the day she lost her job at the university because she belonged to the wrong religious group. As she walked to the gates of the campus, there were two explosions killing many of the students. She says, "there was fire, parts of bodies scattered and the smell of powder. I saw my students.... They were full of life and there they were, lying on the streets of Baghdad. These were our children. They are Iraq’s lost generation.
"Chilcot? No, I haven’t heard of Chilcot."
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna