Thursday, October 25, 2018

Gibraltar Strait – challenging voices from 30 years ago (Brassneck Theatre at The MAC until Sat 27 October) #BelFest2018

Political theatre can be enormously challenging to watch never mind perform, direct, write or market. Each audience member walks in the door with their idea of what is right and wrong, their understanding of what actually happened, their own view on contemporary policies and social issues, and their own ‘truth’ against which they’ll hold what they see and hear.

And that’s on top of the normal preoccupations of how your day has been, the traffic on the way to the theatre, your indigestion from a rapidly scoffed dinner, the length of the queue to pick up your ticket at the box office, and the football-sized sweetie that the person sitting behind you seems to be slowly unwrapping while drowning out the dialogue.

Hugh Stoddart’s Gibraltar Strait lives in this space. Originally performed in London’s Royal Court and in Belfast by Tinderbox back in 1990, it is back on stage with Brassneck in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Five actors and five simple wooden chairs are joined by ten or more characters that represent different aspects of the shooting dead of the three IRA members in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988 and the aftermath. Director Tony Devlin lets the words take centre stage with characters that each have consistent and distinctive accents.

An English journalist (played by Terry Keely) provides a ‘mainland’ perspective on proceedings while an SAS soldier called Michael (Rhodri Lewis) provides insight into the rules of engagement that his unit operated under in Gibraltar. Danielle Magennis is so very convincing as Mairéad Farrell, barely blinking never mind hesitating as she calmly articulates her experience in HM Prison Armagh and her reasons for being active in the IRA in measured tones.

Her mother, played by Séainín Brennan, portrays the dichotomy of wanting to protect her daughter from the risk of further active service in the IRA while appreciating the unfairness of the original coroner’s inquest verdict. She also voices the experience of local islander Carmen Proetta who witnessed the shooting and spoke out in the Thames Television documentary Death on the Rock before having her life and times turned inside out by an outraged London press. Jimmy Doran speaks as an MI5 officer as well as solicitor Patrick McGrory who represented the McCann, Savage and Farrell families. Delivering snippets from McGrory’s final submission to the inquiry’s jury, Doran captures the power imbalance in the room.

Sound effects are sparse but used very effectively, particularly the sound of the shooting, bookended later with a gavel coming down at the end of the inquest. The opening bus tour scene is discombobulating with the driver and passengers facing forward while the wall of video running behind seems to be looking out the front of the bus instead of the back.

Some parts of the script are distilled from verbatim inquest testimony and contemporary interviews. Other parts have been fashioned to fill in the gaps. The balance of speakers, and the cuts between them, are well executed, giving the 80 minute piece enough pace and drama to prevent it becoming an educational drag.
“Here we have a crime that hadn’t been committed, by people who are now dead”
While the writing is sympathetic to the opinion that the killings were unlawful and the ultimate determination of the European Court of Human Rights that Article 2 had been breached, Gibraltar Strait is not a piece of propaganda. The British Establishment and SAS are given space to justify their action, perhaps more space that some in last night’s audience were comfortable with. At an after-show Q&A, republican Joe Austin said that the play had “humanised all those who were involved”.

Theatre can be used to provoke, to expose truth, and to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions. Brassneck’s production of Gibraltar Strait is certainly challenging, no matter your perspective, political leaning or awareness of the events thirty years ago. The short run is nearly sold out, with tickets only remaining for the Saturday matinee in The MAC. Some tickets may also remain for an extra performance that’s being squeezed into ‘The PD’ Andersonstown Social Club at 8pm on Sunday evening – ring (028) 9060 0479 for book.

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