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Terror

AT THE RISK of introducing fresh competition for seats, the Lyric Theatre, in Hammersmith, gives local residents the opportunity to get their paws on tickets for the opening night of their newest play. It was because of this that I ended up sat in the third row from the front watching an English-language performance of Terror, the wildly successful morality play by German writer Ferdinand von Schirach.

Von Schirach is one of those writers not widely known in this country despite the international success of Verbrechen (“Crime”) and Schuld (“Guilt”), both of which are based on cases he came across while acting as a criminal lawyer. Terror, which is Von Schirach’s first foray into theatre, concerns the court trial of an army pilot accused of mass murder after shooting down a hijacked passenger plane. The plane contains 164 people and we learn early on in proceedings that it is headed for the Allianz Arena in Munich, where 70,000 people are watching Germany play England at football. Does the pilot, asks Von Schirarch, have the moral (and legal) right to condemn to death 164 innocent people in order to save more than four hundred times as many? The play is, if not unique, then at least unusual in having the audience play the jury at its conclusion, and decide by remote whether the defendant is guilty or not. The question of Terror is not whether the defendant “did it”, so to speak, but whether he was justified in doing so.


The play is, if not unique, then at least unusual in having the audience play the jury at its conclusion, and decide by remote whether the defendant is guilty or not. The question of Terror is not whether the defendant “did it”, so to speak, but whether he was justified in doing so.


The central focus of the play is moral compromise and the conflict between individual and state morality. The artist director at the Lyric, Sean Holmes, said he was drawn to Terror because of its “populism in the most positive sense”. Holmes added, in an interview with the Guardian, that a play about “personal moral judgment” was “apt at the moment, given where we are politically … people are losing faith in political institutions.” The play cedes the interpretation of the law to us––the mob––in a large enough sample size to suggest at least a regional, if probably not a national, common belief system. Unlike a jury, the audience does not have the luxury to chew the issue over; neither is it at the mercy of the unanimous-agreement rule.

The set design, by Olivier Award-winner Anna Fleischle, is simple enough but effective. The judge, played in the Lyric production by Tanya Moodie, sits in the centre of the room. To her right is prosecuting counsel Nelson, played by Emma Fielding, and to the judge’s right is defence counsel Biegler, played by Forbes Masson. The defendant, Major Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) sits next to Biegler, while a chair and desk that serve as the witness stand sit perpendicular to the audience at the front of the stage. The minimalism of the design brings about an intimacy with the audience and an intensity to the events depicted on-stage.

It occurred to me not long after the beginning of the play that the actors may as well have their scripts laid on the desks in front of them. But that said, and opening night or not, that would give them even less of an excuse for the many bungled or muddled lines, which were barely covered up throughout the performance. (The judge was particularly guilty in this regard: perhaps we all could have voted on that.)


I suspect that the central moral question would be received very differently in Germany to, say, the U.K. or the U.S., not only for cultural reasons but because of the differences in national experience during the 20th Century. The clear feeling at the Lyric on opening night was one of being entertained but not particularly stimulated in an intellectual way, and when the result of the vote came back, it was unsurprising.


I couldn’t help having the feeling that the play thought it was a lot more intelligent than it was. There are casual references to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and others that don’t seem to make the central question any more easy or difficult to answer. Equally, there are supposedly penetrative points made by the prosecutor which aren’t taken to their furthest logical conclusion. I also suspect that the central moral question would be received very differently in Germany to, say, the U.K. or the U.S., not only for cultural reasons but because of the differences in national experience during the 20th Century. The clear feeling at the Lyric on opening night was one of being entertained but not particularly stimulated in an intellectual way, and when the result of the vote came back, it was unsurprising.

The performances were good enough for opening night. John Lightbody, who plays witness Christian Lauterbach, was particularly impressive, as was Ashley Zhangazha, who conveyed very well not only the militaristic look and bearing of an Air Force pilot, but also the inner conflict of an intelligent man placed in a no-win situation.

Taken as a whole the play is good, but not, I fear, the difficult philosophical and moral conundrum it would like to be.

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