London Theater Review: Topical Drama ‘Terror’

Ashley Zhangazaha, Emma Fielding, John Lightbody, Forbes Masson, Tanya Moodie, Shanaya Rafaat.

Stage trials are nothing new. Ayn Rand had a big Broadway hit with one back in 1935: “Night of January 16” was designed to put her philosophy, individualism, to the test. Ferdinand von Schirach’s “Terror,” already a commercial success in Germany, does much the same: It tests the mettle of our morality with a very contemporary dilemma. In the wake of recent attacks it should feel essential. Instead, it’s largely academic.

Major Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) of the German air force sits in a courtroom, a blank stare on his face, accused of 164 counts of murder. Eight months ago, he downed a hijacked passenger jet that was, in all likelihood, heading for a football stadium and its capacity crowd. In launching an air-to-air guided missile, disobeying orders to do so, he saved up to 70,000 lives. The law, however, states he must face trial for the lives his actions ended.

The question, broadly speaking, is whether it is ever justifiable to take one life in order to save others. Emma Fielding’s prosecuting lawyer blithely argues that the constitutions owes each and every one of us our human dignity, only for the defense (an ardent Forbes Masson) to parry with the common sense argument: Koch committed the lesser evil; any of us would have done the same. Tanya Moodie presides over both with a firm judicial authority.

Von Schirach ensures the case is far from open and shut, carefully constructing a scenario that pulls in several directions at once. Details complicate the picture — the indecision of Koch’s commanding officers, the passengers struggling to get into the cockpit — but so do emotions. Events are described with painstaking precision, right down to the four passengers sucked out of the blast holes. A dead man’s wife describes collecting his shoe from the witness box. We’re not just asked to decide between absolutism and relativism, but between action and consequences, intervention and inaction, individual and state.

Popular on Variety

“Terror” lets us into the legal system — not just to witness the judicial process, but to experience it. We stand in the shoes of jurors, but no matter how seriously one takes the role, each of us, inevitably, falls short. There’s too much information to process, too much at stake to completely detach. Some details snag, others escape you. It’s impossible not to tune into emotions — to project remorse onto Zhangazha’s steadfast certainty, to suspect the prosecution of welling up. How much are you swayed by rhetoric over facts? How much are you persuaded by a soft-spoken woman arguing against a brusque Scottish bloke? The decision, when it comes, comes from the gut, no more or less rational than the pilot’s pull on the trigger.

If anything, however, the conundrum is too carefully constructed, calibrated to hang in perfect balance. It makes a fun thought-experiment, a riddlesome mind game or an undergraduate ethics seminar, but, as effective theater, it’s hard to shake the artifice of it all. You’re constantly aware of Von Schirach’s manipulating hand. The moment you step back, you see through it. Nothing’s really at stake here. We are, essentially, deliberating over hypothetical hypotheticals.

The ending — the judgment, handed down by the audience — blows it. This being a “trial,” our decision stands. The judge has to defer, and the verdict goes into law. Whether we find the defendant guilty or not, we are, in effect, congratulated on making the right decision. “Terror” never holds us to account. It never unpicks the ramifications of our verdict, nor examines what that might say about our society. After eight previews, every verdict’s been the same: not guilty. That’s huge. It means accepting the idea of self-sacrifice, and that the law can be bent to the circumstances. “Terror” lets us off scot-free.

London Theater Review: Topical Drama 'Terror'

Lyric Hammersmith, London; 550 seats; £35 ($45) top. Opened, June 22, 2017 reviewed June 20, 2016. Running time: 1 HOURS, 55 MIN.

Production: A Lyric Hammersmith production of a play in two acts by Ferdinand von Schirach.

Creative: Directed by Sean Holmes; Set design, Anna Fleische; translated by David Tushingham; lighting, Joshua Carr; sound, Nick Manning; costume design, Loren Elstein.

Cast: Ashley Zhangazaha, Emma Fielding, John Lightbody, Forbes Masson, Tanya Moodie, Shanaya Rafaat.

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content