Alastair Brett and Siân Evans
Presented by Alastair Brett
Twenty-five years ago on the afternoon of 6 March 1988 members of the SAS (Special Air Service) shot dead three members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) outside a petrol station in Gibraltar.
Those killed were Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann. Members of the IRA’s Active Service Unit, they were believed to be planning a bombing. It soon became apparent that none of the three was armed and they had no bomb with them despite earlier reports, including a claim from the IRA that it was not so big a bomb as others had reported.
This incident led to an investigatory television programme that questioned the legality of the killings, infuriating the British Government led by Margaret Thatcher and provoking an international reaction.
This play is not a dramatisation of the incident, of the planning of terrorism or the battle against it but tries to present a detached look at the aftermath and the way the media and authorities handled its investigation.
Although it quotes from the ITV television programme Death on the Rock and statements made in Parliament, in the Gibraltar Coroner’s Court and passages from police and magistrates’ reports are quoted directly, this is a fictionalised account. The writers describe their characters as “a fusion” of people caught up in the aftermath of the affair and, those verbatim quotations apart the dialogue is their own invention.
Two journalists, Nick Hammond (George Irving)—a broadsheet old hand who at the time of the shooting was in Marbella, working on a story about drug smuggling—and Amelia (Greer Dale-Foulkes), a tyro television reporter, present different approaches in the way that they gather information.
The only contact of Nick that we see is Tommy (Billy McColl) an expat who seems involved in drug smuggling, while Amelia finds Rosa, a Gibraltarian witness of the shooting (who appears to be based on an actual witness at the inquest called Carmen Proetta, though a calendar of events in the programme confuses things by listing Rosa among all the factual material).
There is also Rosa’s husband, whose evidence could be taken either as corroboration or contradiction of Rosa’s depending on one’s viewpoint. It is not clear whether these statements in court give actual evidence quoted verbatim but given to the invented characters.
While Nick is digging out the background and probable links with the drug trade, Amelia goes for the more dramatic, placing interpreter Rosa’s interview declaring the IRA had their hands up, ready to surrender when they were shot, the British gunmen making no attempt to arrest them to bring them to justice.
This was a time of considerable tension with IRA atrocities including the Inniskillen Remembrance Day bombing only a few months earlier and previous SAS killings that had brought charges of a “shoot to kill” policy on the party of the British. Yet both journalists stay calmly objective compared to the attitudes they report among their tabloid colleagues.
The characters are too occupied giving information for us to learn much about them, but the actors do a first rate job in investing them with personality, especially Karina Fernamdez’s Rosa, with her lively critique of the British that brings a smile with its objectivity. Fascinating backgrounds are suggested for both Rosa and Tommy but they are not explored. There is a whole other play there waiting to be written.
The journalists are less interestingly written, they are there for their function and rely on the actors to make them feel real. Would Nick really be quite so generous in sharing his knowledge with someone covering the same story?
In the second half, when things move on to the only partly-explained reaction to Amelia’s television programme—here called Ambush—and the evidence at the inquest, things begin to feel repetitive and less clearly presented, and the play drags a little.
Writer Alastair Brett was, for many years, legal manager at Times Newspapers and knows the journalistic background. The objectivity of the play matches his record as a champion of free speech. At a time when the behaviour of the press and government accountability are still real issues, his topic is timely but he and Siân Evans have not entirely succeeded in creating a drama.
In fact it is the verbatim passages that prove most effective, delivered by the actors, the original speakers often identified on the television screens that hang all round the minimalist staging, screens that otherwise helps suggest location or reminders of Gibraltarian situations.
The result is a play that shows the difficulty of discovering the Truth but that doesn’t tell enough. It may be brutally honest to give the impression of going over the same ground and reaching a stalemate, as when presenting Rosa’s husband’s evidence, but it also stalls the play. Fortunately, most of the time James Robert Carson’s direction keeps things moving and brings some sharply-defined playing from his cast.