If Tony Blair were to be found guilty of war crimes, what would be the appropriate punishment for him? In the West, we are happy to turn a blind eye to our enemies being subjected to rough justice but the suggestion that Blair should be hanged would be received with incredulity and disgust. It’s just part of the double standards that we apply to world relations; while we condemn as murder the deaths of a handful of our own citizens, we ignore those of many tens of thousands of innocent people in other parts of the world. One man’s crime is another’s crusade.
But this is jumping the gun. Tony Blair hasn’t been found guilty of crimes against humanity, or even formally accused of them, so it’s premature to ponder on how he should be dealt with in the event of that happening. What the Tricycle Theatre’s new documentary drama Called to Account does is raise the question at least of whether the Prime Minister has a case to answer. It’s a first step.
I don’t think we should comfort ourselves too much with the power of theatre to call Blair to account. This is only a play after all and while his actions and decisions may be put under scrutiny in a small room in Kilburn, in reality the prototype is free to pursue his particular brand of foreign policy, albeit his days are numbered. There may be a cathartic process at work for the audience but this is an imaginary situation and there’s currently not much chance that the fantasy will come true.
The Tricycle now has a well-established tradition of “tribunal plays”. Nicolas Kent’s production of Called to Account fascinates in the way a good TV drama doc does and has that added frisson of live performance. It is static and wordy 11 witnesses are cross-examined in succession by prosecution and defence and not a lot of new material comes to light. It all sounds rather familiar: did Blair mislead parliament about the reasons for going to war? Did Blair mislead the public about the dangers of WMD? Why did the Attorney General change his mind about the legality of the war?
The witnesses, whose testimony is based on real-life interviews, come from a variety of backgrounds and give their answers to these questions with differing levels of certainty. Some are in the “I couldn’t possibly comment” mould, while Clare Short is characteristically forthright in saying yes, Blair lied.
The performances are brilliant and highly believable. You could be sitting in the public gallery of the court overhearing the actors’ real-life counterparts giving their evidence. There’s even some humour Diane Fletcher gives a passable impersonation of Short’s curt delivery and Michael Mates (Roland Oliver) is full of smug self-importance which can’t but raise a smile.
There’s something slightly dissatisfying about the production, though. It deals with a vast subject and the highly edited contributions are inevitably limited in scope. Given this, the slightly rambling evidence from US neo-con Richard Perle (Shane Rimmer), which makes up a fair bit of the later stages of the play, seems to wander off the subject of Blair’s alleged culpability. The material’s all related, of course, but given the limited amount of time, it could be focused a bit more tightly on more relevant matters.
Once all witnesses have delivered their views (hearsay and speculation do make up a fair amount of the input), the prosecuting and defence counsels give their summings up and it’s left to the audience to make up their own minds. I couldn’t help thinking that many of them had probably done that before they’d arrived.