The Baha Mousa inquiry as 'verbatim drama'

By Vincent Dowd
Arts reporter, BBC News


British director Nicolas Kent has created a stage play out of a public inquiry into the death of an Iraqi in British custody, without making a word of it up. How does a "verbatim play" work, and why did he do it?

Few in the theatre can claim to have created a new genre - but without Nicolas Kent it's unlikely theatre-goers would have heard much about verbatim drama.

Since 1984, Kent has run the 235-seat Tricycle Theatre in the London suburb of Kilburn. He's made it a focus for political writing to outdo better-known rivals, such as the National Theatre or Royal Court.

In 1994 the Tricycle produced Half the Picture, about the Scott Inquiry into the supply of British arms to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The format was straightforward - actors on stage recreated crucial moments from the hearings, using word-for-word the statements made by witnesses and counsel. The "tribunal play" had been born.

Half the Picture was a hit with critics and audiences and an invitation followed to perform it inside the Palace of Westminster. Since then there have been more tribunal plays at the Tricycle, each working to the same basic formula.

They have ranged from re-staging parts of the Nuremberg war trials and the UN hearings into the Srebrenica massacre to, in 1999, The Colour of Justice, which recreated the inquiry into the death in London of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The 2004 play Guantanamo - based on new interviews with detainees and the public testimony of politicians - was also performed in New York.

The Tricycle's innovation had an influence elsewhere. Other writers, including David Hare, realised that ordinary speech - from interviews or from a witness statement - can make effective, highly political drama.


Tactical Questioning, the latest play at the Tricycle, takes the format back to absolute basics.

It's a 100-minute boiled-down version of the 15 months of hearings under Sir William Gage into the death in Basra of Baha Mousa.

Image caption, Nicolas Kent: The play is about our attitude to torture, wherever it happens

If that sounds dry and bureaucratic, it isn't.

The play shows how the Inquiry moves from the detail of what happened in Basra to the military and political framework. The underlying question is why British soldiers thought what they did was acceptable.

Though there's barely a voice raised on stage the audience detects the anger, confusion and resentment from certain witnesses. Some of those questioned remain cool under pressure while others lose their way and bluster. The play has what good drama needs - conflict.

The inquiry, which cost £12 million, closed in London last October and a final report is imminent.

Of all the inquiries given the Tricycle treatment it's probably the one least known to the public. But Nicolas Kent says that's precisely why he wanted to do the play.

"I think the Baha Mousa inquiry was never properly reported by the British media. I went to it a number of times in central London. There were one or two journalists there but by and large it was hardly picked up on. Yet this was an inquiry which needed the full glare of publicity upon it."

Although the UK government has already paid out large sums in compensation, Nicolas Kent believes the hearings registered little with most people.

"In part it's that the Chilcot Inquiry [into lessons to be learned from the Iraq war] was at much the same time and it got the publicity. 'Iraq fatigue' had set in. I can understand that but the fact remains that the British Army in Iraq seems to have subjected certain people to outlawed interrogation techniques.

"The inquiry and this play are about what kind of society we are."

Mr Kent says the best time to do a tribunal play is after the evidence has been given but before the final report is out. "The idea is that the audience can review the evidence and make up their own minds in advance of the official findings."

Audiences going to the play will find no great moments of oratory or flights of theatrical fancy. The set replicates the ordinary room where the Inquiry took place and as far as possible speech patterns reproduce those of people who took part, whether it's an angry witness speaking by videolink from Iraq or the then Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram.

But Nicolas Kent says the lack of histrionics on stage doesn't mean there's a lack of dramatic interest.

"The play may be set in a room in London but it's about our attitude to torture anywhere.

"It's good we live in a society which recognises its failures and looks at them. Our play is a contribution to that process."

Tactical Questioning - Scenes from the Baha Mousa Inquiry is at the Tricycle Theatre in London until 2nd July.

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