Gibraltar – Arcola Theatre, until 20 April 2013
The IRA, and the whole period of the ‘Troubles’, has come to occupy a curious corner of the English consciousness. A decade-long focus on a militant threat that proved terrifying in its complete ‘otherness’ emerged just as the peace terms of the Good Friday Agreement had put in place a clearly misplaced sense of security. As a result decades intermittently punctured by bombing campaigns, shootings and turmoil can sometimes seem a quaint part of the nostalgic ‘little England’ experience; a part of our colonial history long since resolved.
That it is so easy to forget just twenty two years ago Downing Street was targeted with a mortar and during the decade before there those living in Great Britain waging a lethal campaign against the mainland makes the whole situation, in hindsight, appear surreal in the extreme. In actuality the actions of both the IRA and the Government were brutally, terribly real. If the atrocities that continued to mount through the 1980s, which include but don’t end with the events detailed in ‘Gibraltar’, eventually forced both sides to the negotiating table then it did so with significant blood on the hands of all involved.
Taken in this context it is hard to pick fault with the aims of Gibraltar – a new play written by Alastair Brett and Sian Evans, which examines the background to the infamous ‘Death on the Rock’ incident where the SAS shot three unarmed members of the IRA. It also portrays the inevitable press backlash to the testimony of those that dared question the account of ‘our brave boys’.
In such a loaded environment Alastair Brett is an intriguing figure to write the play. Previously Legal Manager to The Times and intimately involved with a libel action concerning Carmen Proetta (broadly the character of Rosa), the position of the play is pointedly opaque. There was a risk that the play would be distastefully myopic in its presentation of the facts but it soon becomes clear that there is little love between Brett and his previous colleagues – a number of caustic jibes are thrown in that certainly go a little further than an attempt at even-handedness.
The concept of ‘truth’ runs deeply through this play; it appears that Brett’s primary concern is about presenting a serious challenge to established journalistic practices and letting the audience decide where the real truth lies. However it is questionable whether these two aims co-exist harmoniously – there is a polemical tone that runs throughout the play that undercuts attempts to build an unbiased account of the action.
Brett’s contempt for the tabloid press shines through and Nick, noble-but-flawed, alongside Amelia, young-but-driven, exists as the sort of journalistic archetypes so beloved by the industry. Using classical Brechtian techniques the play aims to confront the audience and challenge our assumptions – this is often delivered by giving these characters speeches on the nature of journalism, ethics and the truth, a nice effect but rather too often we hear the authorial voice instead of the characters.
The play itself is rather muddled and could have benefited from a firmer directorial hand; in particular during a sprawling first half that does not seem to belong with the far more coherent play which emerged after the interval. The plays imparts a large amount of information in the first half but does so in an inchoate mass of ideas, as a result one of Brett’s key themes, that of the importance of the Costa del Crime to the IRA, runs aground rather early on.
The play does undergo a significant transformation in the second half, benefiting from a more linear narrative through-line and substantially swifter pace from the cast. This is most in evidence during the interrogation of Rosa by the Coroner where we finally come close to the purpose of the play and can see what lies at its heart. The dialogue between the two crackles as it becomes clear that Rosa understands the truth as an entity that is subjective and malleable, and very different from empirical, universal truth required by the Inquest.
To Rosa, the truth of her TV interview and the truth of her Inquest statement are entirely aligned, but the Coroner understands the same words as two versions of the same event. In her defiance and her understanding that what makes truth is something that can alter from audience to audience we see a nub of what makes an intriguing and important debate. It is only sad that we see this so rarely throughout the production.
Gibraltar cannot be considered as anything other than a flawed production that has its heart in the right place. It takes a very complex and emotive subject and attempts to weave something challenging and fresh. Brett clearly knows his subject extremely well and, with the zest of a new playwright, hurls much of it at the stage. One hopes that the influence of his co-writer, Sian Evans, will perhaps see this enthusiasm kept slightly in check so that over the course of its run a more coherent and focused narrative may emerge.