Terror at Lyric Hammersmith review: a slick legal drama where the audience decides the outcome

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Since 2015, Ferdinand von Schirach’s courtroom drama Terror has toured the world from Japan to the United States, playing over 1,500 hundred shows in almost 70 theatres. And yet, as it arrives in the UK for the first time, it feels painfully fresh.

The play asks the audience to vote on the guilt or innocence of an air force pilot, Lars Koch, who ignored orders and shot down a hijacked passenger jet that was heading towards a packed football stadium, killing all 164 people on board.

On the surface, the story borrows from the case of Marine A – who illegally killed a wounded Taliban fighter – as well as the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine and, of course, the 9/11 attacks. These atrocities are writ large into the public consciousness, and immediately lend the play emotional weight.

Being asked to vote on the airman’s future makes you question your preconceptions: “He has a kind face” is a banal and ridiculous thought, but one that would certainly present itself to a jury. And will the fact he’s black make a difference (in liberal theatre world, presumably not, but in real life...)?

As the case begins, brought wonderfully to life by the two legal councils, it becomes clear that while terror may be the backdrop, this is a play that deals predominantly in philosophy rather than morality. For all the clever presentation, it can be boiled down to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s trolley problem: would you push a fat man off a bridge to save a bunch of people? The cursory injection of emotion, in the form of a tearful testimony from a grieving widow, is the play’s weakest segment.

An interesting addendum to the evening is the post-play number-crunching, with data from across the world centrally logged. The airman was found not guilty in most European countries, overwhelmingly not guilty in the US, but guilty in both Japan (a rule-based society) and China (an authoritarian society). Not only is Terror a slick legal drama, it also brilliantly demonstrates how the double-helix of law and morality is both subjective and subject to change.