Retired Judge to play a Judge at Highgate theatre

Sir Michael Burton during a staged reading at Gray's Inn

Sir Michael Burton during a staged reading at Gray's Inn - Credit: Archant

Sir Michael Burton explains why he’s acting in John Mortimer’s Naked Justice Upstairs at The Gatehouse in aid of the art therapy charity set up in his late wife’s name

John Mortimer, the playwright Q.C., author of Thames TV's new six-part series, "Rumpole of the Baile

John Mortimer, the playwright Q.C., author of Thames TV's new six-part series, "Rumpole of the Bailey", portrayed by actor Leo McKern (right) - Credit: PA

Few people have seen inside a Judge's lodging, let alone presided over a Crown Court trial.

Sir Michael Burton has done both, so getting into character to perform in John Mortimer's Naked Justice might not take much research.

As the retired Judge prepares to appear Upstairs at The Gatehouse, he admits:"I was a High Court judge for 18 years so playing a High Court judge is not as you say a stretch for me. The big difference is that when you are a judge you write your own script but in a play you have to learn someone else's words and stick to the script."

Luckly that script was written by both an accomplished dramatist and a criminal QC. Alongside Naked Justice, Mortimer famously created the character of Rumpole of The Bailey in book and TV.

And most of Sir Michael's fellow cast members are amateur performers, who work as solicitors and barristers by day.

"I am playing a criminal judge, which I've never done, so it's a bit different. John Mortimer wrote a number of plays based on legal events. This is one of his less well known but what you get is his great knowledge of how the bar works - he doesn't overdo it, you don't need to be a laywer to enjoy it, but the setting is well researched. A judge's lodging is an unusual place that most people wouldn't know about. The High Court judges who go on the circuit, travel around the country hearing complex legal cases. They have to be put up in lodgings because you can't have them in hotels in case they bump into jurors or even criminals."

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Naked Justice revolves around three Judges in a lodging; one criminal, one civil, and one family. It involves dark secrets, blackmail, courtroom scenes from the trial of a teen accused of murder, and a moral debate about who judges the Judges.

"It's great fun and has a good twist," adds Sir Michael, who acted at Oxford University and has gone on to appear in a string of plays from Twelve Angry Men and Inherit The Wind to Guys & Dolls and Joseph. Much of his acting work has been with other legal professionals in charity productions by the troupe Lawyers in Action, who formed in 2001 for a show at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre.

Does he feel there are close links between the acting and legal professions?

"Everybody loves a trial scene," he agrees. "You have the prosecution trying to nail someone, and the defence trying to get them off. I suppose mechanically acting and being a lawyer are related in that one must speak clearly, project oneself, and be understood.

"There is something theatrical about a QC. A barrister is able to be a bit flamboyant and can win over a jury with a fine speech, but a judge can't be ebullient. They are there to keep the trial going and reach the right decision. They must be wise and control the court...although you can make the odd joke."

While rules about advance disclosure have made for "more sensible justice," courts are less dramatic these days he says.

"Disclosure in advance means you can no longer produce something unexpected, everyone knows what's coming so there are no last minute witnesses or revelations which turn the case. That said, a good cross examination can produce admissions which are key."

One of Sir Michael's career achievements was as president of the tribunal scrutinising the secret services MI5 and MI6.

Under his stewardship, top secret hearings became more open with the tribunal deciding on the principal of the complaint in public before hearing the nitty gritty behind closed doors.

"By assuming what the complainant said was true we would decide on that assumption whether it was lawful or not. Without forcing the security services to reveal anything at risk to national security, they had to disclose the rules under which they were operating.

"I have to say they are extraordinarily careful in what they do and I have absolute confidence in them. In all those years I didn't come across any area in which I was concerned that there was something unlawful going on, or privacy being unjustifiably breached.

"In these days of Al-Quaeda and Russia you have to find a balance. There are rules they have to comply with, but the risk is that helps the bad guys know how to get around them."

Naked Justice is performed in aid of the charity which Sir Michael set up in his late wife's name. The Corinne Burton Memorial Trust raises funds to train art therapists working with cancer patients. After his wife's untimely death at just 42, he raised their four young daughters.

"She was an artist and children's book illustrator and doing pottery took her mind off her cancer. When she died I wanted to do something in her memory which reflected her life."

Art therapy isn't just giving patients a brush and a box of paints, he says, "it's a science, a mixture of art and psychotherapy where the therapist can see beyond the picture and, while setting things down on paper, patients can talk about themselves and gain self knowledge."

A 25th anniversary party for the ex-students at Goldsmiths whose study was funded by the trust was hugely gratifying, says Sir Michael.

"There is a whole alumni working in hospices and in the field of art therapy for cancer care. It's rather lovely to have Corinne's name memorialised in that way. It really feels we are doing good in her name."

Naked Justice runs April 1-5 Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate.