Northern Ireland’s troubled history provides fertile ground for writers who wish to explore difficult issues like colonialism, patriotism, sectarianism and political and press ethics. It’s with these issues in mind that Alastair Brett – a former legal manager at the Sunday Times – and Siân Evans’ play, Gibraltar, aims to examine one of the most complex episodes in the Troubles.
On 6 March 1988 SAS soldiers shot dead three unarmed IRA terrorists suspected of planting a car bomb to murder British troops in Gibraltar. A TV documentary filmed within days of the shootings cast serious doubt on the legality of the British operation, while an inquest into the shootings later called into question the programme’s accuracy and the ethics of the press. The play focuses on the immediate aftermath of the shootings, and the press backlash following the TV documentary’s broadcast.
Given the play’s ambitious scope, it’s understandable that the main characters are composites of players in the real-life drama. Nick, a broadsheet journalist based in Gibraltar to examine drug smuggling in the Costa del Sol, acts as a reluctant mentor to a young TV journalist, Amelia, working on the documentary. Both are in contact with Rosa, a Gibraltarian court translator whose TV interview about the shootings sparks further controversy, while drug-runner Tommy gives an unsettling insight into the IRA’s involvement in the narcotics trade.
Brett and Evans have done well to capture the complex issues with economy, although the characters themselves are rather too lightly drawn. Nick is at once recognisable as the kind of wily hack Brett must have struggled with over the years – easy with facts and tough advice, but perhaps a little too easy with kickbacks for his criminal contacts too – and Amelia represents practically every liberal press archetype imaginable.
George Irving and Greer Dale-Foulkes play the journalists with a good deal of physical and emotional intensity, but as the characters’ dialogue veers from simplistic moralising to impenetrable chatter about facts and counter-facts they’re never more than mere totems. Tommy and Rosa are similarly light-touch; it’s hard to really sympathise with, or dislike, any of the central characters.
Beyond the simple characterisation the play suffers from chaotic attempts to crowbar Greek chorus-style interludes into the action. Rosa serves as our sometime narrator, and although Karina Fernandez’s wonderfully languid Iberian diction and artful ad libbing are the play’s most memorable component, the audience might wish that the character’s non-sequitur monologues about the Rock’s history were a little more forgettable. More superfluity comes from British expats’ overblown caterwauling about Maggie Thatcher in an attempt to bring The Sun’s gloating coverage of the story to life.
Fortunately when the play turns to the real drama of the Gibraltar Coroner’s inquest and Rosa’s trauma as she’s traduced by the British tabloids – ‘The Tart of Gib’ headline will stoke an uncomfortable memory for audience members of a certain age – it does contain some tight writing, giving the cast an opportunity to put their skills to good use. And James Robert Carson’s production makes clever use of a minimalist set to evoke the shabby home-from-home nature of 1980s Gibraltar, with glitchy VHS-style footage on screens around the stage serving as a televisual backdrop to the action.
But by trying to cram too many issues into the piece, the writers fail to cut through to their intended critique of press ethics and there are times when you find yourself wondering whether it’s supposed to be a courtroom drama or a polemic. The best that can be said of it is that you might also be inspired to find out more about the real story – if only to answer some of the questions the play leaves unanswered.