First published in The Times, Thursday August 26 2021
The bare facts of the event that inspired Hannah Lavery’s poignant and powerful play now ring horribly familiar. In May 2015 Sheku Bayoh, a young black man who had been reported to police for his erratic behaviour in a Kirkcaldy street, was confronted and forcibly restrained by a number of officers. He lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered.
The most shocking element — to some at least — is that this tragedy took place in a Scottish town and not in Missouri or Minneapolis. Characters in Lavery’s play lament that such an event could occur in a country that sees itself as inclusive. “This is Scotland,” one says. “It’s not Black Lives Matter.”
Bayoh’s death and the long shadow it casts are the catalysts for Lavery’s play, presented jointly by the National Theatre of Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Lyceum. The raw detail of what happened on the night in question is one of the script’s many repeated refrains. Over time, we discern inconsistencies in the way the event was reported, both by the officers involved and the media. Bayoh, who was of average height and build, was characterised as “massive”, while the suggestion that he was carrying a machete was easily disproved.
While the events themselves are disputed (a judge-led inquiry into the case is continuing) Lavery probes beyond Bayoh’s death and its aftermath, asking her audience to face up to some ugly truths about identity and racism in Scotland. We are shown pictures of the trainee gas fitter in traditional Scottish dress, surrounded by his white friends, his partner, and children. Yet, given the manner of his death, the playwright asks, are there limits to the degree to which a black man can assimilate and feel safe in Scotland?
While there is little movement in Lavery’s production, physical or dramatic, its urgent, intimate atmosphere demands our attention. The tone is unapologetically angry at points, but Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart, the performers, deliver the mix of dialogue, spoken word and reportage with a dignified calm that makes the human tragedy at the show’s heart all the more affecting. Meanwhile, music composed and performed by Beldina Odenyo, including a haunting take on Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That, adds a further layer of irony to the play’s themes.
Box office: 0131 473 2000, to August 28; available online until August 31. Nationaltheatrescotland.com