A highjacked plane is heading towards a stadium in Germany in which 70,000 people are watching a football game. When attempts to divert it fail, a German fighter pilot called Major Lars Koch disobeys orders and shoots it down, killing all 164 on board in order to save the people in the stadium. Now he’s on trial for murder.

Chris New as Lars Koch and Sarah Malin as the Prosecuting Counsel in Terror. Photograph courtesy of Brisbane Festival

Koch doesn’t dispute the facts of what happened but stands by his decision. At that time, the federal constitutional court had decreed that it was wrong to kill innocent people to save other innocent lives. So technically Koch has broken the law. But was he morally justified in what he did or not? After hearing lawyers for the defence and the prosecution, it’s up to the audience to decide by casting a vote.

Written by German lawyer and author Ferdinand von Schirach, Terror premiered in Berlin in 2015 and has since been seen in seven countries. An English language version, translated by David Tushingham, premiered at London’s Lyric Hammersmith in June directed by Sean Holmes. That production (with a different British cast) is now having its Australian premiere at the Brisbane Festival.

A straightforward courtroom drama, Terror is staged on an authentic looking set by Anna Fleischsle. Schirach has added enough twists and turns to blur the moral issue and keep us intrigued, with the agile line of questioning by the Prosecuting Counsel (Sarah Malin) turning up other elements to consider, and the appearance of a grieving widow (Remmie Milner) of one of the victims, adding some emotion.

Chris New plays the dignified Koch with convincing restraint – so his sudden angry outburst suggesting that all people who fly these days know they could be used as weapons by terrorists, doesn’t quite ring true and feels as if it is added to keep our sympathies oscillating.

Terror is not about terrorism as such, though that provides the context in which the moral, ethical and legal issues raised in the play need to be considered, and with so many acts of terrorism perpetrated around the world in recent months, the piece does feel timely.

After interval, the audience is asked to cast its vote on a small gadget tied to arm of the seat. Strangely, the second act only runs around 15 minutes, with the prosecution and defence lawyer (Aidan Kelly) summing up, the audience voting and the judge (Josephine Butler) revealing their verdict. Since Terror began, around 90 percent of performances have found Koch not guilty with around 60 percent of audience members voting that way. Last night, 246 audience members found him not guilty and 175 considered him guilty. (There are different endings depending on the outcome of the vote).

Performed here by a different British cast to the one that premiered the production in London, there was some stumbling over lines at last night’s opening but the performances were persuasive across the board. Sam Redford completed the ensemble as Christian Lauterbach, the officer liaising with Koch and making, or not making, other crucial decisions.

Terror isn’t the most dramatic piece of theatre but it keeps you with it, canvasses important themes, and certainly had audiences debating the case at interval.

Terror plays in the Playhouse, QOAC until September 23.


Limelight was flown to the Brisbane Festival by Brisbane Marketing and accommodated by Rydges South Bank Brisbane.