Written by Danica Van der Merwe.
Herman Grech was in the newsroom of the Times of Malta during the investigation into a murder that shook Europe. As he worked on the case and wrote about the car bombing that killed journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a play began writing itself before his very eyes.
Herman is bringing his play They Blew Her Up to Brussels where it will be staged at the KVS Theatre on the 4th and the 5th of May 2022. As the AEJ is a supporter of the play, we wanted to sit down with Herman and speak about Daphne, the case and the play that brings to life the very relevant issues faced all over Europe with regards to press and media freedom and the silencing of journalists.
Volunteer, Danica Van der Merwe and AEJ Belgium Vice President, Alia Papageorgiou, conducted the interview with Herman Grech.
When did you start writing the play?
Very soon after all the events of November 2019, everything came together at once. It was in the newsroom where the play was basically writing itself. There was so much drama and I just had to write it.
I experienced that more people opened up to me when I wore the hat of a playwriter than when I wore the hat of a journalist.
Why did you choose to label characters as concepts such as the ‘criminal element’?
There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the case is ongoing. The trial has not even started yet. I am also walking on legal eggshells. Additionally, it was a system that killed daphne, not just one person. It was a group of individuals egged on by a system thinking they could get away with it.
Why did you go for a fictional account?
There are legal implications that I need to be careful about. I also needed to create a flow between the scenes, which is where the fiction had to come in. However, a lot of the content comes from true statements and testimonies. The script is verbatim, meaning a lot of what I aid in the play was said to me in testimonies and interviews.
Why did you choose for verbatim theatre?
The whole situation is such a big drama that I didn’t need to add anything to it. The story is horrific. We’re talking about somebody being blown up.
You have the police character and the criminal element and a journalist. I spoke to journalists about what they thought, and their views were so strong I didn’t need to add to it, I just needed to stitch them together.
In the Times of Malta article of March 7, 2021, you are quoted saying:
“November 29, 2019, was a long, momentous day, rife with resignations of important political personages, continuous drama, people questioned by the police and street protests. I said to myself, “this is a play writing itself.”
Could you explain this a bit more?
I have been in journalism for 25 years.
To find out the person who could have commissioned [the murder of Daphne] is linked to the office of the prime minister. To see protests in a country where we don’t normally protest much. To witness people deemed untouchable in the political scene suddenly marched to the police station for questioning. It was surreal and for a journalist that was incredible.
What was it like putting the play together during a pandemic?
It was a nightmare. We were wondering if we would ever get the play to the stage. We had rehearsals done virtually as some actors got covid. But at least the monologues in the play made the socially distanced rehearsals easier. But when we staged it, it was very difficult. We played for half theatres and had to cancel others all due to the restrictions even though it was always sold out.
Why are you bringing the play to Brussels and not Malta?
people were uncomfortable with it being staged in Malta because it embarrassed many people. The government and the investigators were embarrassed.
We also decided to film the play, as we couldn’t perform it normally due to Covid. It was available to screen for two weekends and I had people I knew, especially in Brussels, telling me I couldn’t keep the play in Malta. In fact, Matthew Caruana Galizia- Daphne’s son, who was not interviewed in the play and he did not interfere with the play- was the first one to tell me to take it abroad after seeing it.
It has an international dimension. Daphne Caruana Galizia is not just another name. It talks about media freedom and democracy. It talks about a possible state being implicated in a murder.
It happened quite fast and, eventually, I got into contact with the KVS theatre and we decided to do it.
How did you keep the balance between idealising Daphne and remaining sensitive to the case?
Daphne was hated and loved in equal measure. So it wasn’t easy. I have the character of the journalist who does not like Daphne, her first words show a strong dislike for Daphne and she is very critical of what Daphne used to do, such as attacking people in the ruling labour party. Then I had her son who hailed her, which brought balance.
The tone changes when we see someone was trying to cover up the case.
Why did you decide to take this path of merging journalistic work with theatre?
It gives me an avenue to spread my wings. It allows me to tell things I cannot tell in the newspaper or even on my website.
I’ve been doing this for the past few years. I feel very passionate about journalism and feel it is essential for democracy. I don’t think people understand what democracy would look like without journalism. In the past years, I have tackled plays with themes directly linked to Journalism. In 2006 I directed a play called Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness. It’s about the Beirut hostages in the 80s and I had 3 guys chained to a wall in the theatre. That play inspired me to do more political theatre.
Another experience I had that stuck with me was an audience member who said something to me after watching the play I did on migration. He told me that, of all the stories I had written on migration, none of them were as effective as the play.
I write many real stories of migration and racism and this guy was telling me that this work of fiction was more effective. So I saw that real-life stories can at times work better on a stage.
Will the play evolve with the case?
The play has been changed for the Brussels production.
The case is evolving. We were changing the script between the first and second weekends of the play.
Already on the 4th of April, the 3 men accused of planting the bomb filed another constitutional case saying they can implicate someone else in the murder. So, I told the KVS theatre that I might be changing things on the very last day.
What can the audience expect from the play?
Some of the narrative is very shocking. You come close to a system which is broken. The system shows the link between the business and the political community and how dangerous that can become in today’s society. It transcends who makes money- it is a matter of life and death. The proximity of the business world and politics possibly led to the murder of a journalist. And it’s happening everywhere.
I am hoping that people can say it did happen in Malta but journalists are being threatened all over for exposing things that people in authority are doing their utmost to hide.
It will appeal to journalists but it should appeal to politicians as well. Politicians have seen it and have commented that it’s an important play to stage.
People need to watch it to see the dangers of politicians who run their mouths and also to show the things journalists do wrong. It also exposes the danger of people shooting their mouths off on social media. We are not listening to one another and the result is desperation.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the play?
I needed to get it out of my system. I needed to show the extent of what really went on. Not everyone read news websites, and that is where journalism and theatre work so well together. Theatre can be used as such a beautiful art form to tell the stories that need to be told.
I want to explain the dangers of vilification. Journalists might screw up but there are ways to criticize them and put them in their place. And to explain the extents people will go through to conceal their ill deeds.
The play ends on a note of hopelessness – there is no conclusion. This was on purpose. Daphne’s family feels this hopelessness. The cacophony of noises is silencing the reasonable voices out there. I also wanted to draw attention to our society which tends to get very polarised as well as the dangers of social media. There are a number of factors here.
I also wanted to make sure that Daphne’s story will not be forgotten. I was not a fan of Daphne, but I knew her. I will never accept people saying we need to turn a new leaf and pretend it didn’t.
An enquiry concludes that there was the right climate to kill a journalist, and not only that but it shows a clear attempt to cover up the perpetrators. It is disgraceful. And that should be shouted out to everyone in Europe.
We cannot let the bastards get away with it.
Matthew Caruana Galizia, Daphne’s son, will be in Brussels on both nights that the play is staged. He will participate in an audience Q&A alongside Herman Grech.