Legal luvvies take centre stage

Saying that a lawyer is a frustrated actor is a bit of a stereotype.


Burton performs in the Tricycle Theatre’s Inherit the Wind
Burton performs in the Tricycle Theatre’s Inherit the Wind

But when it comes to the group of solicitors, barristers and judges that gathers several times a week at the Tricycle Theatre in North London it is true.

The company is deep in rehearsal for a production of Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg, a play based on the 1961 film of the same name about the trials of judges involved in the Nazi regime.

The cast includes a couple of QCs, a High Court judge and lawyers from across the spectrum of civil, family and criminal law. In July they will take to the boards of the theatre for five performances of the show.

Judgment is the fifth production at the Tricycle with an all-legal cast. The first, staged in 2001, was Twelve Angry Men. It opened to good reviews, although the show was not without controversy, as a source from actors’ union Equity was quoted in the media hitting out at the use of amateurs in a ­professional production.

The idea of using lawyers to put on a play was the brainchild of ­Tricycle artistic director Nicolas Kent. The theatre has a tradition of producing so-called ’tribunal plays’, dramatising significant inquiries and investigations. It also supports the local community through an educational and social inclusion programme.

The lawyers’ productions are fundraising efforts, supporting the programme through ticket sales.

Kent’s concept appeals to the thespian leanings of many lawyers and, says director Sally Knyvette, attracts a lot of interest. Now, ­auditions are advertised in the legal world – at solicitors’ firms and in barristers’ chambers – and always draw in more people than are needed.

Each show has a legal theme. This year it was a toss-up between Judgment at Nuremberg and Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. The company has also put on Are You Now or Have You Even Been?, Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of those to audition for the first show was High Court judge Sir Michael Burton. He has since appeared in every Tricycle lawyers’ production, and is playing the part of dissenting judge Curtiss Ives in Judgment.

Burton confesses to having acted at university and in local drama groups, and says he sees a link between the day jobs of the cast and their participation in the production.

“There’s a relationship between advocacy in court and acting,” he says. “As a judge you write your own script rather than sticking to somebody else’s, but there’s a bit of acting in presiding over a court.”

The lawyers involved in the ­Tricycle shows are treated like ­professional actors, apart from the fact that they do not get paid. They rehearse two or three times a week in the evenings and at weekends. Knyvette plans rehearsals meticulously, but is aware that sometimes work might prevent a cast member from coming.

“I don’t end up talking to them about their day jobs because the moment they walk in that door they’re beginning to work on the script,” Knyvette says.
Burton is full of praise for his director, who he says is “able to get the best out of those who aren’t professionals”.

“There’s always talent, but a lot of the basic skills that an actor would have are not the ones a lawyer would have,” says Knyvette, pointing out that her role is to teach as well as direct.

Most of the time, says Burton, it is easy to separate the day job from the role – but not always. He describes rehearsing a scene where his character dissents from the ­tribunal’s opinion.

“While the judge was delivering his decision I was sitting there absolutely stony-faced, waiting for my chance to disagree with my learned brother,” he says, saying this is how he would behave in a real appeal court.

“But Sally said I had to respond,” he says. “That’s where one’s experience is different from what she looks to see from the point of view of an audience.”

As well as the chance for the lawyers to tap into their inner prima donnas, the fundraising aspect is a draw. One performance of the show raises money for a trust set up in memory of Burton’s late wife, which funds training for postgraduates who provide art therapy for cancer patients.

“It’s worthwhile because you raise money for that and the ­Tricycle’s community work,” Burton says, before conceding that ­philanthropy is not his only motive.

“It’s also good camaraderie, and it’s fun,” he concludes.