There must be law to keep our society functioning, if not we would have anarchy. If someone breaks the law they must be brought to justice. Few of us would question these statements and yet when morality blurs the boundaries of the law, who can make the final judgment?
This conundrum forms the basis of Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terror, at the Lyric Hammersmith in which the audience is asked to become the jury on an ethically complex case of murder.
A fighter pilot has been called upon to escort a plane, which has been hijacked. If he doesn’t take action, the plane – which is carrying 164 passengers – will crash into a football stadium filled with 70,000 spectators. Despite orders to the contrary, he shoots the plane down, killing all 164 passengers but saving thousands in the process.
But how can one man decide the fate of the 164 and who can decide if their lives were less or more important than the 70,000?
It’s a very difficult dilemma and what’s ingenious about von Schirach’s play is that – just like a real jury – we are presented with pure facts and given full disclosure from both the prosecution and defence attorneys (with impassioned performances from both Emma Fielding and Forbes Masson) before we use the power to establish the soldier’s destiny.
There are few plays around at the moment that feel more pertinent and an eerie silence rings throughout the auditorium for much of the performance as we are given testimony from a military colleague, from the wife of one of the doomed aeroplane passengers and from the defendant, Lars Coch (played very straight by Ashley Zhangazha), who is steadfast in his belief that he did the right thing.
The play is translated from the original German text and set in a German Court, which means much of the debate is over whether Coch has broken the law and contradicted the constitution. This means some of the arguments couldn’t be perused here (Britain doesn’t have a constitution), but the dialogue does still have significance to the climate in the UK at the moment and the division between certain echelons of society.
It’s, at times, stifling with Anna Fleischle’s grand set design looming high over the auditorium as if in judgment and giving an imposing feeling of separation between the audience and the cast. It is nevertheless, a fascinating piece of drama and despite any preconceptions – when the audience is allowed to recess – they most spend the 20-minute interval in debate with their parties about which way they will vote (sound familiar?).
Of course, if we are just deciding whether the pilot broke the law or not, the judgement has to be guilty, but morality and emotion are what sets humans apart from other species and as such, they rarely fail to influence our decisions.
Using consoles attached to the theatre seats, we make our judgments and on the evening I attended, humanity prevailed with 62% of the audience choosing a not guilty verdict.
Photo by Tristram Kenton