Lawyers on Trial

This summer’s production of Judgment at Nuremberg will put history and budding legal thespians in the spotlight. John Cooper QC meets the director, Sally Knyvette, for the inside story.

When I walked into the rehearsal room at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London, I found Sally Knyvette already sitting at the table waiting for the first audition to begin. I was glad that I was early for the interview, because had I been late, I instinctively felt that she would not have been pleased. I was right. “When I am working with people, I expect professionalism and that includes being on time,” she explained.

Sally is directing her fourth play at the Tricycle, this time, it is Judgment at Nuremberg, Abby Mann’s searing analysis of why judges during Hitler’s regime in Germany were complicit in allowing Nazism to take a hold of its people. Sally previously worked with Jack Gold as Assistant Director on Twelve Angry Men and went on to direct Inherit the Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird and Are you now or have you ever been?, the powerful piece on the McCarthy witch-hunts.

They all have one thing in common.  Every part is played by a lawyer.

Holding court

It is often thought that being a lawyer, particularly an advocate is closely associated with being an actor. I asked her if there was any truth in this: “In part yes, voice projection and the power of speech are both common denominators, but there are differences.  In many respects, lawyers are trained to suppress emotion, as an actor they need to use it.”

The image of a group of emotional lawyers brought into my mind some alternative behavioural counselling session, but Knyvette put my mind at rest: “The dialogue of a play has an emotional subtext, not so much what is said, but what is unsaid. The actor must interpret this and my job is to help them on this journey.”

Treading the boards

Some of the cast are old hands, veterans of past triumphs including none other than Mr Justice Burton, but others have never acted before and the experience often changes their lives. “The lawyer who played Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird had never acted before. I had to encourage him to expose his emotions.”

From what Knyvette told me, this was a traumatic experience for the actor, something which seems commonplace for unsuspecting lawyers. “It is a good job that I don’t know how important these people are in the law.  I treat them all the same and I have to be quite tough.”

How tough I asked her?  I was intrigued to find out how she handled High Court Judges and senior lawyers.

“Sometimes they don’t stop talking.” She said, still very protective of her protégés. I pressed. “Well, I sometimes have a problem with them talking when other people are working, as if they are having a glass of wine and commenting ‘I think that went rather well’ after their efforts.”

But that is the only hint of criticism I extracted from her. What is clear is that Sally Knyvette’s has a great deal of admiration for the lawyers who balance alongside their day job treading the boards on the London stage. “It is a massive commitment,” she adds, “rehearsals began in March and take place twice a week at least until the final night on 6 July.” (See rehearsal shots opposite).

Keeping on top of the brief

I wonder how many busy practitioners and judges find time for such a commitment once they had agreed to play the parts. Knyvette’s reply was simple: “Fear. People who want to do it, really want to do it, but once they have taken the part no one wants to make a fool of themselves in front of an audience, like any good lawyer, I know that they will be on top of their brief.”

The director’s cut

Sally Knyvette is a good judge of actors. She should be, she has immense experience in the business. To many, she is something of a star having featured in the iconic BBC series Blake’s 7 and she smiles as she admits that she occasionally appears on the convention circuit. After that she was a main stay on commercial television, but at the age of 29, Sally decided to take time out and study at university for an English degree.

Since then, she has developed an impressive reputation for stage direction. Sally also uses her time to teach children and young actors the essentials of their chosen trade, where she probably learnt the art of patience, essential when dealing with enthusiastic members of the legal profession.

Judgment matters

But back to Judgment at Nuremberg and the acknowledgement by the director that the Tricycle Theatre has chosen a demanding play to undertake this year. ‘”It is just as relevant now as when it was written nearly fifty years ago. Then the world was coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazi Germany, now there are other world atrocities of which people who should have known better, turned their faces away.”

That is the crux of the production. The play concentrates on the trial of four judges who were, in different ways, complicit in allowing the Nazis to flourish, shockingly sending innocent people to their death, intoxicated as the judges were, with the fervour and imperatives of the time. The play was made into a film starring such names as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark in 1961 and was nominated for 11 Oscars.

The Tricycle Theatre has a rich reputation for challenging and provocative productions.  Earlier this year its Artistic Director Nicolas Kent presented a series of plays on the Afghan conflict at the Pentagon before key American decision makers and five star Generals.

Judgment at Nuremberg will continue that rich vein of timely and probing productions, no doubt enhanced with the quality of acting from the cream of the legal profession.

John Cooper QC, 25 Bedford Row, and author of plays and screenplays including “Burning Point” at the Tricycle Theatre


Tricycle Lawyers’ Production 2011

Judgment at Nuremberg
by Abby Mann
Director: Sally Knyvette

Diary date

The Tricycle Theatre on Wednesday 6th, Thursday 7th, Friday 8th and Saturday 9th of July 2011.

Tickets

Tickets for the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night performances are £60. The 4pm matinee performance on Saturday 9th will cost £30, which includes the play, wine and an Indian buffet supper afterward.

Tickets for Thursday night’s Charity performance will be £80 and the proceeds will be split between the Tricycle and the Corinne Burton Memorial Trust (supporting Art Therapy in Cancer Care). They will also include post-show curry and wine.

The proceeds from the performances will go towards the Tricycle’s Education Programme.

Online booking
www.tricycle.co.uk/about-the-tricycle-pages/notice-board/

Box office
020 7328 1000

Category: