"Investigative journalism may be our only hope": Herman Grech

The Evens Foundation interviews the creator of the play They Blew Her Up

They Blew Her Up: Interview with Herman Grech

On 1 October, They Blew Her Up, a play about the brutal murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, will be staged at Internazionale a Ferrara, one of the biggest gatherings of journalists in Europe. The production is supported by the Evens Foundation.

Ahead of the event, we interviewed the play's writer and director Herman Grech – who is also a journalist and editor of the Times of Malta – about the resonance of the story internationally, the importance of the free press, and combining journalism with producing and writing for the theatre.

Evens Foundation: How do your disciplines of journalism and playwriting inform each other and how did they complement each other for the play They Blew Her Up?

Herman Grech: I see a lot of crossover between journalism and theatre, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a passion for both for several years. There are many plays which depict real-life stories, drama which reproduces and reinvents stories which have been in the headlines, or at least drawn inspiration from. Both journalism and playwriting evoke a social and political response from their audiences. With theatre, you have the privilege of having a captive audience, shorn of digital distractions. Most of what is presented in my play They Blew Her Up is a snapshot of what happened both behind the scenes as well as the headlines that have chronicled one of the most horrific crimes ever committed in my country. And there’s enough drama in the dialogue, despite the fact that they are delivered mainly through monologues.

"I strongly believe that it was the ‘system’ that killed Daphne"

EF: Most of your theatre work depicts real-life stories — what tools do you use to translate these stories, often taken from interviews and court transcripts, to the stage?

HG: For the last 15 years or so, I’ve tackled theatrical pieces which depict a remarkable historic episode or controversial social theme: from the Lockerbie bombing to the migration tragedies in the Mediterranean to Malta’s blanket ban on abortion. Each of these plays was reproduced through interviews, news reports and anecdotes laced with elements of fiction. For They Blew Her Up, I interviewed a number of people connected with Daphne’s story, including journalistic sources of mine, and coupled it with the dramatic court testimony which has emerged so far. But since the case is still ongoing, I’ve also revisited the script, including with the upcoming show in Ferrara.

EF: You mentioned in an interview that because you were reporting the story of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, it felt natural to write it as a play — was this also a way of creatively processing what happened? It does write that it was an ‘artistic expression’ — in what ways do you feel you took creative liberties?

HG: The idea to write the play literally came when I was in the newsroom in November 2019 at 2am waiting for the outcome of a crucial government cabinet meeting, while scores of angry people protested outside at the end of a day of shocking revelations. It was like the House of Cards as we confirmed that Daphne’s murder was linked to people close to the heart of government. Literally within days, I set out to interview several individuals. I was surprised how many were more forthcoming when I was interviewing them wearing the hat of a playwright rather than that of a journalist.

It was then a matter of gelling the piece together, by weaving the monologues with short scenes of interaction as well as video footage of the crime in between the scenes. Of course, I did take some creative liberties, but most of what you will hear in the play was narrated to me or else is documented. One particular character was tricky – the criminal depicted is a mishmash of the people linked to the murder. Ultimately, I strongly believe that it was the ‘system’ that killed Daphne. It’s not the work of just one individual.

"We still see journalists being killed for doing their jobs"

EF: The play was rehearsed and staged mostly during a global pandemic which also meant that you streamed the play online. Had you watched the streaming of it? Do you know what the reactions were?

HG: The original co-producer — Spazju Kreattiv — opted to film the play knowing the risk of staging it right in the middle of the pandemic. And it’s a good thing we did because we had to cancel our last five shows as the country went into semi-lockdown. I must admit, I’m not keen on watching theatre on screen, I feel film loses a lot of the magic of a live performance, but the initiative seemed to have worked. I know hundreds of people watched it at home, and it certainly helped to take the story overseas… and it wasn’t just journalists watching it.

EF: The play has been shown on a variety of stages, and next week will be shown in Ferrara and again in Malta shortly for the fifth anniversary of the killing. Does the change in context alter the play in any way? Or does the play have a universality to it that can be adapted anywhere?

HG: We are putting the spotlight on the murder of a journalist sparked by a horrific car bomb. Since Daphne’s murder, we’ve seen journalists killed in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Greece, Ukraine, Turkey, Palestine… you name it. So the story resonates in many countries. We still see journalists being killed for doing their jobs, and some of them are the victims of state-sponsored assassinations. Though the subject in the play focuses on a crime in the EU’s smallest state, it is a universal problem, and it’s also happening in the heart of Europe. I could see the way the audiences in Brussels were engaged and could associate with the story even though it happened miles away. And they were especially engaged in the post-show question and answer session we had together with Daphne’s son Matthew… which we are also doing in Ferrara.

"Investigative journalism may be our only hope"

EF: How do you see They Blew Her Up in the context of continuing discussions about the free press? As a journalist yourself, could you speak to the weight of that message?

HG: Through this play, I wanted to push forward the importance of journalism as the so-called fourth estate, and the risks that journalists take when the institutions fail us. While it is right that journalists are put under the spotlight, we often do not fully understand the implications of a world bereft of free media. Too many people get their ‘news’ from social media platforms that are interested in money, not the truth. We are also increasingly living in a world where dangerous leaders like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Donald Trump are declaring war on the truth. Little do we understand that investigative journalism may be our only hope.

EF: What is next for the play and for you?

HG: Clearly, it is not curtains down for They Blew Her Up. Since we first staged the play in Malta, we’ve had several requests to perform it in other countries in Europe, and we are currently in discussions with some theatres. My priority remains journalism, but I want to keep telling stories when people are tired of reading the headlines. I have a different theme I want to develop for my next play, but for the time being, I want to focus on Daphne’s story both on news platforms and on stage… we have a duty to do that — at least until justice is fully served.

Portrait of Herman Grech by Daryl Cauchi.