1990s >> 1998 >> no-1128-august-1998

Theatre Review

Injustice and “the law”

Nabokov’s Gloves. Hampstead Theatre.

Employment is a central feature of most people’s lives, and its impact on behaviour has been widely documented by modern playwrights. In the last five years or so it is easy to remember Alan Ayckbournes aspiring entrepreneur finding himself literally involved in murder in A Small Family Business; two young city types playing the money markets and thereby occasioning the collapse of the family firm in which their parents work in Serious Money; and Weskers cook driven to uncontrollable violence as he succumbs to the pressures of life in The Kitchen. And now in Nabokov’s Gloves at the Hampstead Theatre, Peter Moffat shows how the lives of a handful of young barristers are affected by the practice of law.

Nick is a smooth-talking, conceited barrister whose great passions in life are football and pop songs. Both matter far more than his partner, his other relations and his work as a lawyer. But when he becomes fixated with a client his cosy, privileged life quickly collapses. Critics in the posh papers noted Nick’s constipated emotional life and other inadequacies supposedly characteristic of English males. I wouldn’t gainsay Nick’s retarded emotional development, but I would charge the practice of law as having much to do with many of his obvious deficiencies.

In Britain the legal process is like some elaborate game. It is a game which is concerned with winning rather than with justice; with the manipulation of juries and evidence rather than truth-telling: a game in which barristers who represent the interests of clients behave with what is seen as a praiseworthy inscrutability and detachment, even when they know that their clients are guilty as charged. Indeed far from “the law” being a virtuous activity, its practice and also the wellbeing of its practitioners must necessarily become compromised when winning is the order of the day. Justice, like truth and honesty, need and compassion, are inevitable victims of a system which puts winning first and everything else second.

All this is very clear in Peter Moffat’s revealing and engrossing play. If some of the critics choose to ignore the obvious, and to take refuge in clichés about “the weaknesses of the middle class English male” (whatever they are), that is their privilege. Moffat has fashioned an acerbic piece of drama which is played with great conviction by a talented cast, and which grips the audience from first to last. A play which shows the practice of law as a hollow sham, the basis of a privileged lifestyle for its practitioners; the whole sustained by double-dealing clerks intent on more business and thus more money for themselves and their professional (sic) colleagues. Far from the practice of law being a principled activity Moffat suggest that its amoral pragmatism damages both the emotional and moral wellbeing of all those caught up in its clutches. The tainted values which are required in order to succeed, serve only to undermine and tarnish the rest of lawyers’ lives.

But then we shouldn’t be surprised that in an unjust society those who serve the cause of supposed justice are also its inevitable victims. The nature of law in a class-divided society is essentially to serve the interests of the dominant, minority class. And there sure ain’t no justice in that.


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