Richard Norton-Taylor: ‘I have always believed that theatre as a platform is an extension of journalism’
Over the last 20 years, the former security editor for The Guardian has created verbatim theatre based on some of Britain’s most significant public inquiries. Georgia Snow finds out about his latest work, Chilcot.
How do you approach finding a topic for a verbatim piece?
I did some plays at the Tricycle Theatre, London, called the Tribunal Plays, which were based on various public inquiries, and that’s the basis of Chilcot as well. I started from the fact that the raw evidence was quite devastating and the main characters were quite easy to choose. The raw verbatim material on the Chilcot Inquiry has been largely forgotten, in the way that some of the leading witnesses were quite forthright in their evidence. There was a lot of key evidence I hope will be brought out or will be a basis for the enormously long report that comes out in July. We add to that interviews with British soldiers, families of those killed, and Iraqis, too.
Why do you think the verbatim method works well in theatre?
I am primarily a journalist, and I have always believed that theatre as a platform is an extension of journalism. Verbatim, documentary theatre helps to explain things like a long-running dispute – a public inquiry that lasted 10 years and I put it into three hours. People tend to read 300 words in a newspaper or a two-minute clip, and it’s hard to put all the evidence together like that, so if you create a 20,000-word essay and put it in front of a live audience, who are also reacting to each other, I think you’re putting things into context much better.
When did your involvement with theatre start?
At the very beginning it was because Nicholas Kent, the then director of the Tricycle, read some of my stories in the mid-1990s. I was writing these pieces for The Guardian everyday about the Scott Inquiry into Britain’s involvement selling arms to Iraq, and Nick – who I played tennis with most Sundays – said we should make them into plays. That’s something I have then replicated with him six or seven times, but this is the first time I have done something without him. I’m working with a young director, Matt Woodhead, who did some very good things at Edinburgh last year.
Do you think the appetite for documentary theatre has changed?
When I started, I didn’t know what it would be like because the audience sort of knows what happens already – it’s not exactly a surprise plot. But people liked it, it struck chords because it was real. I think it was quite refreshing after the sort of traditional, sitting room-type pieces. I think it has definitely changed, other playwrights have said that. David Hare has, I think. People like the raw material, it allows those involved to speak for themselves when often people have forgotten what the evidence was.
CV: Richard Norton-Taylor
Training: University of Oxford (1963-1966)
First professional role: My first theatre piece was Half the Picture at the Tricycle Theatre, London (1994)