Devised and Produced by
Blast Theory and Hydrocracker
It is 1983 and I’m sitting my A Levels and dating a British soldier who turns out to be doing undercover surveillance around the Border in Northern Ireland. Fast forward to 2017 and my son is studying for his A Levels and I’m about to go undercover as part of a state surveillance operation in Manchester.
Friday afternoon and my Handler texts me a meeting point to rendezvous with the rest of my undercover team. At 7.45pm we gather and wait uncertainly for our instructions. Paranoia is already setting in as I assess the group and zero in on two individuals who might be participants like me but who might just be actors planted in the group.
The lines are blurring as another text sends us to a dingy location and our Handler suggests we make tea as an ice-breaker. People are moving around. A van door opens and I catch a glimpse of a hunched figure before it slams shut. We head upstairs to the briefing room and a very convincing Richard Hahlo rattles through the details of the covert operation. Images of POIs (Persons of interest) are shown and we are bombarded with intelligence on them. My Handler is matter of fact as he calmly reminds us that we do whatever we feel necessary to extract intelligence. The underlying inference is WHATEVER it takes. I start to feel like I know what is expected of me and adrenaline kicks in.
Divided into small groups we develop our cover stories. Deciding who we are going to be starts to uncover lots of details about who we actually are and what we are comfortable sharing with strangers. The groups head off separately to infiltrate a social event full of right wing extremists. Drinks ordered at the bar and we enter the crowded venue and start to mix. It is hot and loud and difficult to tell who are actors, audience or just normal Friday night punters.
After a while chatting with guests we finally get into conversation with our POI who is hard as nails yet warm and funny too. The disarming part of the performance is mixing with people who hold views that I find abhorrent yet finding myself warming to some of them. At one point my team mate and I hold an animated conversation with “Lisa” about how great it is to have the D.U.P have sway in parliament. We enthuse about their anti-gay views and pro-life stance. The striking point to this is that we both appear at ease with this perspective. We have never met before tonight yet we both come from Northern Ireland and are a similar age but whereas I grew up Protestant on the Border, she was a Catholic from Derry. The sense of blending in to survive in a hostile environment was unnervingly familiar and we both felt like kindred spirits through the whole experience.
The night passed quickly and people ebb and flow building the sense of confusion over who is “safe”. I get caught in a tussle and “Lisa” and I get soaked with a G &T, a bloke gets threatened with a pool cue and we get offered napkins and fairy cakes. Intelligence gathered we are told to exit to safety. Outside the bloke who spilt my drink insists on an overly long, apologetic hug and whispers he will see me at the next Meet. I feel dirty and triumphant. Meeting another undercover operative we have to make decisions that may change lives forever. It is the power and subtlety of Operation Black Antler that ensures we really do become deep swimmers in a very murky world.
Speaking to Director Matt Adams from Blast Theory afterwards it is clear how much thought, effort and nuance has been put into developing this production. As with any immersive theatre you only get out what you put in to the performance. I found it very powerful and as I chatted to Matt Adams about growing up in the blurred boundaries of sectarian life on the Northern Irish border and the implications of Brexit and GE17, it was crystal clear how valuable this experience was. It is a sobering reminder of how easy it is to shift our moral compass to accommodate our environment, but at what cost?
At HOME until 17 June