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The perpetrator, the victim, and a play of reconciliation

Northern Ireland
Play poster

In 1984, Pat Magee planted a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, which was hosting the Conservative Party conference. Among the five people killed was MP Anthony Berry. More than 30 years later, Julie Everton and Josie Melia have written a play, The Bombing Of The Grand Hotel, which focuses on the unlikely relationship between Pat Magee and Jo Berry, Anthony Berry’s daughter, as they attempt to see the world through each other’s eyes. Dave Wybrow, Artistic Director of the Cockpit Theatre, which premiers the play this month, tells New Internationalist why the play – and the events it looks back on – have such relevance today.

Why present a play featuring an ex-IRA bomber not just as a character but also involving him in the research? Aren’t you allowing terrorism in general more ‘oxygen of publicity’?

Acts of terrorism always draw attention to themselves rather than the issue under protest. I think the arts have a duty to follow things up in an intelligent way that allows for lessons to be learnt; to give society the chance to look under the bonnet at the way these horrifying events have become inevitable in our world. The radicalization of individuals is part of that. Given that aim, involving people who have really been there is a logical thing to do and ensures the stories told reflect lived realities, something very important to us for this show. Especially when there is a positive, progressive story to be told.

The Brighton bombing was an attempt by the IRA to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative cabinet 31 years ago; how can a play about that be relevant to contemporary issues involving, for example, Islamic terrorists?

All the same things that were said then are being said now: that the people involved are ‘merely’ murdering fanatics; that there is no just cause, that terrorist acts are criminal acts and not political ones. All the while, those perpetrating the acts claim to be soldiers in a war. Simultaneously, there are political power elites and legal as well as illegal commercial interests competing and manoeuvring on both sides, with civilians and foot soldiers doing the dying. The talk then was of ‘sectarian violence’ as the root of the problem, just as now, the talk is of ideological perversion as a prime cause. In both cases, a large part of the problem was, and is, the arguable vacuum left by the state’s failures to fulfil basic social needs on a fair basis, and the ease with which militaristic movements were and are able to colonize the resentment, despair and anger of populations who feel themselves forgotten.

Will The Bombing of The Grand Hotel have lessons for us along those lines?

Lessons to be learnt, not lessons to be given. That would be to underestimate the audience. The play is not a piece of agit-prop. And it’s certainly not about explaining away the horror. The play is concerned with the specific event and unpacking the stories of two of the real people that were involved. We hope that the play will give a space to contemplate the real-life relationship between Pat, who planted the bomb, and Jo, whose father was killed in it, in relation to the mind-sets of the time. We want to illuminate the ways in which violent conflicts become mobilized at a personal as well as a political level. Importantly, the play is inspired by the ways Pat and Jo worked their way forward beyond violent conflict after the event.

What have been the main difficulties bringing the play to the stage?

Everyone involved has become intensely aware of the range of sometimes competing responsibilities to be honoured: the intellectual responsibility to the subject as history; the responsibility to the physical victims of the bomb; the responsibility to those still living out later stages of the conflict; the responsibility to those that fought and died before and after it; and perhaps, most of all, the responsibility to Pat and Jo, for whom it was a huge risk on many levels to get involved with the project at all. Balancing these responsibilities so that they mobilize each other within the play, rather than just cancel each other out, has been a huge challenge. A challenge that we’ll only know has been met once we get an audience in front of it.

As director of The Cockpit, what has your role been?

We provide the space for it to happen. Not just the theatre but also the mode of acceptance of the idea. The Cockpit styles itself ‘Theatre Of Ideas’. This means we were ready and able to talk about this project from its very early stages – rather than just saying yes to a deal around a finished script. We were involved in finding additional sources for the writing in Ireland and in London. We also hosted an early reading, participated in a political theatre symposium with the writers in Brighton and gave feedback on early drafts of the script. I was particularly concerned that the play should invoke the overall political context of the time in its range of voices as well as the more subjective story of Pat and Jo. This is hard to do. The writers can talk to Jo and Pat but it’s no longer possible to talk to Margaret Thatcher, for example. We want to try to articulate all voices within the play, to support its historical quality and relevance. My key contribution has really been to stress the need to include as many voices as possible and to make sure the play gets its facts right!

For details of The Bombing of The Grand Hotel, which runs from 13 April to 2 May, visit the Cockpit website. The Bombing of The Grand Hotel is a co-production between The Cockpit and Wildspark Theatre.

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