Suzannah Conway

Lyric Hammersmith brings a dark and politically potent work, Terror, to Brisbane Festival for its Australian premiere.

Cast of Terror at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton. 

Written by German defence lawyer turned author, Ferdinand von Schirach, Terror premiered in both Berlin and Frankfurt in 2015. It was then translated by David Tushingham into English and subsequently produced by Artistic Director, Sean Holmes, for the Lyric Hammersmith. This work examines issues of how to manage and confront terrorism – one of the great challenges to our current way of life – the play's relevance has seen it being produced in many different countries around the world.

In essence a courtroom drama, we follow the hypothetical trial for murder of an Airforce pilot who shot down a hijacked passenger jet, killing 164 people, potentially to save the lives of 70,000. Taking the situation into his own hands and choosing what may appear to be the lesser of two evils leads to a philosophical debate,which is at the heart of the piece. As the story unfolds, the audience is asked to decide the guilt or innocence of the pilot, in a context of what is morally, ethically and legally the 'right thing to do.'

This is theatre where the fourth wall has been removed and the audience becomes both judge and jury, playing an important role in determining the future of the pilot. Involving the audience is a neat trick to keep them on their toes, making them sit up and listen. While courtroom dramas are the stuff of many plays, what makes this piece work is its subject matter, all too raw for many in the aftermath of a spate of recent terrorist attacks but nevertheless fascinating. Absorbing, didactic theatre that tests both our values and our humanity, with no definitive right or wrong answers to the complex moral issues of the day, can be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

Terror works best as an analysis of the legalities and issues about protecting citizens in a terrorist-prone world and asks some hard questions. But as a piece of theatre it is problematic as, to really grab our attention, we need 120 minutes of absorbing, nail-biting drama revealing new facts and plot directions and this is where the work falls down. While it is intended to be forensically objective and play down emotions, the original script appears to lack sufficient tension and human emotion to make us, as an audience, invest in its hypothesis. While the play needs interaction with an audience to deliver the premise of voting on the outcome, its static nature with some stilted positioning of witnesses turning in their seats to try and engage with the audience, was dull to watch.

The artists do their best but the script is clunky at times and some sections are frankly puzzling. For example, why would the Prosecutor attack the expert Airforce witness for failing to empty the football stadium, in effect supporting the Pilot's position. This made no sense. 

As the Presiding Judge, Josephine Butler gave a sterling performance, keeping the pace and energy levels high and her interactions with the audience offered some light relief. She was assisted by the Defence Counsel, beautifully played by Aidan Kelly, injecting humour and personality into what was otherwise quite dry material. As the Prosecutor, Sarah Malin's projection was unfortunately rather lightweight so that she lacked the authority that the role required. Chris New as the pilot Lars Koch, on trial for his life, presented an image of a cold professional, without much of a human touch, which is clearly how the role was both written and perceived. It made his character one-dimensional and it was a pity that he was not allowed a summing up statement to flesh his role out. Remmie Milner as a nurse whose husband was killed on the plane showed some muted anger and was restrained emotionally, which was a curious portrayal. Expert witness, Lauterbach, played by Sam Redford, explaining the airforce position on terrorism while at the same time hanging Koch out to dry, certainly gave out mixed messages.

The set design by Anna Fleischle was efficient and realistic, even if some of the staging was awkward. Director Sean Holmes clearly gave us a straightforward reading of the script, happy to let the moral and ethical questions guide the production, rather than any characterisation or personalities, which was a pity.

Ultimately, this was an interesting concept of an important and major moral issue of our times, which may have sat well as a TV Q&A.

It was terrific to engage the audience and to give them a chance to physically vote, with an interesting and probably predictable outcome. However, the play itself lacked drama theatrically, and during the interval people were talking about their own lives, not about what they had just witnessed. It seemed the play did not engage as well as it might – or should.

Rating: 31/2 Stars out of 5

By Ferdinand Von Schirach
Translated by David Tushingham

Lyric Hammersmith (UK)
Director Sean Holmes
Designer Anna Fleischle

Franziska Meiser Remmie Milner 
Christian Lauterbach Sam Redford
Presiding Judge Josephine Butler
Major Lars Koch Chris New
Defence Counsel Biegler Aidan Kelly 
Prosecuting Counsel Nelson Sarah Malin

Brisbane Festival and QPAC
Playhouse, QPAC
Wednesday 20 September 2017
Until Saturday 23 September 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 10 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.