Last December, the jury at the inquest into the de Menezes shooting returned an open verdict, rejecting the notion that de Menezes was killed lawfully by police. The de Menezes family, who have been campaigning tirelessly for justice since that day, felt vindicated by the verdict but still maintain that de Menezes was killed unlawfully and are seeking criminal proceedings against the individual police officers involved in the case.
Now London’s Fringe audiences have the opportunity to explore the issues surroundings the case via a trio of productions based around the incidents of 22 July 2005.
The first to open was Steven Lally’s play Oh Well Never Mind Bye, which is running at the Union Theatre until 4 July. Set in the offices of a fictional newspaper in the days before and after the shooting, it explores issues of distortion and bias in the media, drawing on interviews with members of the de Menezes family, senior police officers and former employees of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Oh Well Never Mind Bye is a comedy with undoubtedly serious aims. Director Tom Mansfield describes how he and Lally, both living in Stockwell at the time, were “both very affected” by the de Menezes shooting. They were struck by the sheer volume of information, much of it untrue, that flooded the media following the incident and wanted to tell the truth about that day: “We felt very much that it was important that that story was told.”
Developmental workshops took place in 2006 and 2007 in which their company, Upstart Theatre, none of whose members are being paid for their work on the production, sifted through reports on the case and began to examine the incident in terms of its wider context. Mansfield explains that they “became interested in how the media was reporting on the climate of fear that was set up at the time”. The result is a play that casts a very critical gaze on the modern British media machine.
Stockwell: The Inquest into the Death of Jean Charles de Menezes, shortly to open at the Landor, is another play set to deal explicitly with the shooting. The production, which runs from 21 July to 8 August, rather than building a fictional framework around the case as Lally’s does, is based entirely on the verbatim transcripts from last year’s inquest. A cast of eight will be taking on 35 trial witnesses, in what promises to be a quick fire blur of characterization.
Director Sophie Lifschutz comments on her decision to use this approach with the material: “What’s very powerful about that is that it has authenticity and it also has drama. Theatre has an immediacy that I think is very powerful and it also has an element of forcing an audience to use their imagination and make up their own minds. What I like about it is that we effectively cast the audience as a jury and they are actively involved. So we’re using drama to convey the events with the words of the people who were actually involved. And (the audience) hopefully draw their own conclusions”.
Although Lifschutz and Mansfield’s companies are addressing these issues in very different ways, their aims in terms of the impacts of these productions are similar. Lifschutz, uninterested in viewers coming to particular conclusions to the questions raised, wishes for audiences “to be challenged by it and gripped by it and engage with it”. Mansfield goes further, commenting that “the role of the arts in general and theatre in particular isn’t to answer questions, it’s to ask them”. He aims with this play “to encourage members of the audience to think about the question: what kind of media do we want?”.
The third production on this subject, to take place at Theatre 503 in October, is still in development. The play, by Oscar-nominee Paul Unwin and first-time playwright Sarah Beck, is untitled as yet, but will be a verbatim piece based on the accounts of a number of individuals “who haven’t spoken before”. Tim Roseman, artistic director of 503, will be directing the show; he says that unlike Stockwell and Oh Well Never Mind Bye, it will “not be a forensic play about why it happened, but a play looking forward”.
The public interest in the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Jean Charles de Menezes has not faltered since that fateful day. With these three productions London theatre audiences are being offered the opportunity to engage directly with an informed debate on the subject. It’s been a long time in the coming, but it looks like finally the truth will out.