Gauging someone’s level of success depends on a clear understanding of their main objective. For Gibraltar’s eclectic characters, that varies from political influence and professional advancement to the search for that most slippery catch: “the truth”. For the play itself, based on media portrayal of the SAS’s shooting of IRA suspects, the aim is far murkier, falling somewhere between documentary reconstruction and compelling Theatre. It is markedly more successful in one area than the other.
Drama “inspired by” real events has to strike a balance between authenticity and entertainment, and Gibraltar creators Alastair Brett (a former Times lawyer) and Sian Evans complicate this further by interrogating methods of presenting facts for public consumption in a commercial arena…while presenting such facts to a paying audience in the guise of drama. Escher would have a field day.
One might also be tempted to examine the author for bias rather than his characters, given that Brett defended The Sunday Times over its reporting of ITV documentary Death on the Rock and in particular key witness Carmen Proetta (here transformed into Ambush and ‘Rosa’), before suing Channel 4 over allegations made about his own coverage. Is this actually an attempt to put a definitive stamp on one version of events?
The play doesn’t escape this moral quandary, however Brett’s somewhat “method” approach does result in a richly informative evening. Those unfamiliar with 1980s politics will need to spend some quality time with the programme notes, as Gibraltar makes glancing, unapologetic reference to Thatcher, Stalker and the finer points of IRA and SAS tactics during a rapid-fire cross-examination of information, investigation and influence.
It also succeeds in mining past events for resonant contemporary themes: press controversy drawing attention away from victims (Leveson, Saville); “trial by TV” (Panorama); the complex web of media, law, police and politics (“Plebgate”, hacking); whether or not release of information is in the public interest (super-injunctions, Wikileaks); the blurring of boundaries between war and justice, “shoot to kill” as necessary precaution or murder (Jean Charles de Menezes).
All of which suggests great promise, yet Gibraltar, directed by James Robert Carson, doesn’t quite deliver. The journalists (George Irving and Greer Dale-Foulkes) are mere cyphers, illustrations of opposing methods, and neither suffer any real conflict or dilemma that would give the audience insight into the difficulty of finding absolutes in this environment. Nor are they blessed with sufficient characterisation or motivation to make us invest in their personal outcomes.
In addition, we never get a clear understanding of the stakes involved, for these people or the wider world. There’s an unfortunate haziness surrounding increasingly hollow protagonists and an increasingly confused tangle of conspiracies, with information heaped on rather than drama shown.
Thank goodness for the colourful supporting characters: the wily smuggler/informant with a gift for self-preservation (Billy McColl) and the coolly seductive Rosa (Karina Fernandez), interpreter of both language and facts, who steals the show with her lyrical monologues, flashes of much-needed emotion and enigmatic steeliness.
If Brett and Evans’ sole intent is to encourage us to ponder the issues, Gibraltar does its job, but – as the play hammers home – does the end justify the means? Those issues often bump up against their dramatic framework, creating problems for both actors and audience, which suggests this might not be a suitable forum.
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By Marianka Swain
Cast photography by Simon Annand.