Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith
Against the orders of his superiors a fighter pilot shoots down a hijacked aircraft, killing all 164 passengers on board but preventing it from crashing into a stadium full of 70,000 football fans. Is he guilty of murder, or has he justifiably picked the lesser of two evils? If you’ve already got an answer it’s unlikely you’ll find anything to change your mind in the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Terror, a worldwide smash by German playwright and lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach.
That’s slightly unfair; there are a few interesting kinks in the conundrum along the way. The backbone of the prosecutor’s case is that killing innocents to save innocents is unconstitutional according to the German federal court. Practically there is then the issue of why the stadium wasn’t evacuated, and the internal military culture that may have led to that action not being taken. More radically, the defendant, Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha), argues that by boarding a plane in the current political climate one consents to potentially becoming a weapon that needs to be neutralised.
Yet the central flaw of Terror is highlighted by the level of consistency in the audience’s voting record. According to the play’s website, 91.7% of spoken verdicts have been “not guilty”, with a near uniform 60-40 split among the jurors at each performance. Maybe people would always struggle to convict in such a case, confirming some utilitarian ideal. More likely is that Terror fails to fully engage with the debate at its core, merely wrapping the infamous “trolley problem” thought experiment in the modern world’s most acute fear.
While the show’s content is, quite literally, up for debate, it’s merit as a piece of theatre isn’t. Von Schirach’s text is painfully dry, full of legal and philosophical exposition. Lacking any narrative drive the playwright resorts to a heart strings-tugging second witness, her inclusion failing to elicit any drama due to just how naked von Schirach’s intentions are.
The script isn’t helped by Sean Holmes’s flat production and Anna Fleischle’s grandly bland set, the latter suffering in comparison to some of the designs used in Europe. It also leaves no room for performance. Zhangazha is convincing in his conviction, and Emma Fielding and Forbes Masson get their moment to shine when giving their closing arguments – yet the experience feels closer to reading the text than witnessing something live on stage. The one nod to theatricality – the electronic vote at the end – is likely the reason the play has been so embraced. It leaves the audience with a (false) sense of engagement severely lacking in the preceding hour and a half.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Terror is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 14th June until 15th July 2017. For further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Terror here: