“Is that the truth, or you interpretation of it?”
In the midst of the Troubles, the 1988 shooting of three Provisional IRA terrorists outside a petrol station in the rocky outcrop of Gibraltar might have just been one amongst many atrocities but a number of factors conspired to turn it into an even more controversial event. Alastair Brett – a former Sunday Times lawyer who was intimately connected to the media storm that erupted – has co-written Gibraltar with Sian Evans, to relook at the killings and the press coverage that followed to examine the point where journalistic ethics crossed swords with both the British political establishment and the IRA itself to become responsible for, they argue, a huge obfuscation of the truth. But the resulting play, and James Robert Carson’s production of it which currently sits in the smaller of the Arcola’s studios, is as rough as the bare brick of the theatre’s walls.
An uncertainty about the play’s dramatic purpose is evident from the outset. Based as it is on real events and using the direct testimony from Parliamentary debates, legal offices and official reports from police and magistrates, Gibraltar seems to spring from the verbatim tradition, a feeling reinforced by short scenes and the small company covering a multitude of different roles. But bolted onto this is a contemporaneous, fictionalised retelling of events from the journalistic perspective – the seasoned old hack contrasted with the ambitious eager rookie – trying to demonstrate how their varied attempts to pursue the best story possible and/or uncover the truth play out.
And it’s an extraordinary move for a piece that values the notion of truth, both in its abstract form and in its stone-cold reality, so very highly. In one moment, one is sifting through the evidence of what actually happened; the next, we’re watching an interpretation of events from a viewpoint of questionable subjectivity which is ostensibly fictionalised but so closely linked to the real version that the division is blurred. And so it is never clear what the main intention of Gibraltar is. Is it to scrutinize the practice of investigative journalism or is it to push us closer to a better understanding of the circumstances around the event in question, is it even to give us a flavour of life in Gibraltar – sadly it achieves neither particularly well with a clumsy script that relies far too much on repetition of ideas than elucidation.
Carson demonstrates a far too loose touch in manoeuvring the constant shifts of the narrative, the uneasy mix of fact and fiction, and so there is rarely the vibrant push of a story that needs to be told And this hesitancy also comes across in the company: there’s convincing work from Greer Dale-Foulkes as the keen young documentary maker but of the four actors, only Karina Fernandez succeeds in strongly delineating the various roles, most notably as the key witness whose unique version of events skews the entire affair. Cordelia Chisholm’s bare-bones design of suspended television screens starts off as an effective device but the clarity of its purpose is inexplicably made murky with a thankfully brief but extremely ill-advised trip into expressionistic video work.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Gibraltar is a confused piece of theatre.