Terror

Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by David Tushingham
Lyric Hammersmith

Tanya Moodie, Emma Fielding, Forbes Masson and Ashley Zhangazha Credit: Tristram Kenton
Ashley Zhangazha as Pilot Lars Koch Credit: Tristram Kenton
Tanya Moodie as Presiding Judge Credit: Tristram Kenton

On one level, Terror is one of those courtroom dramas in which the audience gets roped in to play the jury or, in this case, the lay judges who are asked to vote on a matter of German constitutional law.

This may initially sound dry, but when the accused has murdered (or otherwise) 164 people, there is enough debating material to fill two hours, broken by a recess after which we are asked to press button 1 for guilty or 2 for not guilty.

The proceedings are eloquently introduced by Tanya Moodie playing the Presiding Judge, a brisk, brusque individual short on humour but, as a result, perfectly suited to the role, and for the first 20 minutes or so of a work created by lawyer and writer Ferdinand von Schirach, this appears to be its raison d’être.

Sitting on either side of the Judge in Anna Fleishchle’s high-ceilinged courtroom are Emma Fielding for the prosecution and Forbes Masson, potentially trying to defend the indefensible since his client has already made a full confession and agreed the facts as laid out.

This is where the drama turns into something else. Lars Koch played by Ashley Zhangazha is a major in the German Air Force, who flies the best fighter that it can afford and is clearly the star of his generation.

Almost a year before events in the courtroom, his flight had been scrambled in response to what was clearly a hijacking along 9/11 lines.

The passenger jet with the aforementioned 164 people on board was heading towards Munich and an undisclosed target, which was most likely to be a football ground filled with 70,000 people watching Germany play against England.

As the Presiding Judge explains, such an eventuality had been considered back in 2005. Then, the constitutional authorities decided that a pilot could not shoot down an airliner filled with innocent people in order to prevent the deaths of many more.

In the full knowledge of this fact and aware that the Defence Minister was pulling the strings governing his every move, Koch still shot down the airliner.

What makes the situation more complex is the failure by the authorities to evacuate the football stadium clearly, in the eyes of the prosecuting counsel, on the basis that he would unilaterally press the button at the vital moment.

Eventually, after a series of lectures on moral philosophy and a great deal of heart searching, including evidence given by the major’s superior and also a grieving widow with a seven-year-old son, the evening had moved far closer to a moral and ethical debate than the original regulation courtroom drama.

Despite the fact that the play has been performed in Germany, Japan, the United States, China and elsewhere now including this London production directed by Sean Holmes, there are too many inconsistencies included in an effort to ramp up the moral stakes. To add to the confusion, it would effectively be possible to conclude in either direction due to the ambiguity of the question, since the pilot had clearly broken the law, although there are strong moral grounds for supporting his actions.

That is a pity, since the underlying concept is excellent and, at the performance under review, the vote was relatively close scoring 184 to 133—it would be unfair to suggest in which direction.

Tanya Moodie and Ashley Zhangazha in particular catch the eye in an evening that is engrossing and morally challenging, even if it doesn’t always hang together in purely dramatic terms.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher