Lament For Sheku Bayoh
Written and Directed by Hannah Lavery, Lament for Sheku Bayoh is a National Theatre of Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh co-production. It will be streamed on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st November. Tickets are available on a “pay what you can” basis from £5-25.
It seems almost like a lifetime ago now, back in the summer of 2019, when I saw the original version of Lament For Sheku Bayoh. It was a rehearsed reading billed as a “Call and Response”, part of “You Are Here” programme at the Edinburgh International Festival. At the time, the issue of racism in Scotland was very much on the agenda. The National Makar Jackie Kay had, in a speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival, declared that Scotland was “decades behind cities in England” when it came to awareness of racism. Her book Red Dust Road had been adapted as a play by Tanika Gupta who largely agreed, stating that it was “odd” that Scotland’s theatre scene failed to reflect the country’s diversity. These comments were not very well received with some sections of Scotland’s arts community. The issue of institutional racism in Scotland was, often, still locked in denial. Looking back now, with hindsight of what happened in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in USA this year, it seems almost prophetic for the Royal Lyceum’s Artistic Director, David Greig, to have commissioned this almost two years ago now. I asked what had inspired him to do that.
“I live in Fife and so I was aware if the Sheku Bayoh case from the start. A couple of years ago I noticed that it had come to occupy a strange place in the Scottish political psyche. It was as if everyone – wherever they were on the political spectrum – wanted to ignore the case. The right because of their tendency is to support the police, and the left because their tendency to support Scotland. It struck me that something which everyone wants to ignore is something that theatre should explore that.
“ I’m sure I’m not the only person who deeply wants Scotland to be ‘different’ and ‘better’ as regards racism or xenophobia. The Scotland I want to see is welcoming and inclusive and multicultural. But, it’s a short step from wanting that to be true, to believing it is true… to thinking… Scotland is welcoming and inclusive – that there is no problem with racism here. I felt this desire to look away from Sheku was leaving his family to fight for his memory alone. As a theatre director I’m always looking for work which asks the big civic questions… like the Greeks… I had a feeling that our desire to look away from Sheku was a deep reason why we should turn our gaze towards him.
“I also felt the story should not be an attack but a lament. That drew me to Hannah. Hannah is a poet first and foremost. Her play ’The Drift’ was a subtle and moving eulogy for her father which explored belonging, anger, love and contradiction. Hannah knows how to handle contradiction, anger and love. That made her, I felt, the obvious person to take on this difficult and complex story.”
I returned for a second day in 2019, intrigued by the play but even more so by the questions that were raised in the discussion that followed. Indeed much the attitudes and denial David spoke about came up in the Q&A. One American visitor pointed out that black people could be racist too, more than white person stated that they “don’t see colour”, there was a mood of being uncomfortable with the idea of Scotland being as racist as any other European country. I asked Hannah Lavery if this was part of the reason she wrote the play.
“I think that its important for us to talk about Scotland honestly, and to not turn our heads away from things that feel uncomfortable. I hope this play will be a beginning of a journey, that will leave you with questions you want answered and give you an energy to pursue a better Scotland. For some of us it will be about being seen and heard, to have our knowledge of this country shared.”
The plan back then had been for The Royal Lyceum to take the play on as a full production in 2019. But then came the global COVID pandemic and it seemed that “Lament” would be lost to us like many other plays. Crucially, Greig was determined. The Royal Lyceum was mothballed and struggling but, between them, EIF, and National Theatre Scotland (NTS) they pushed ahead and have brought this play to the stage.
Since then Lavery has reworked much of the script. She has retained the original cast of Patricia Panther, Saskia Ashdown and Courtney Stoddart. Courtney is, like the author and Director, known primarily as a poet, she is also an activist who has written extensively on racism in Scotland.
“It was an enlightening experience to work with Hannah. Immense power can be unearthed when people who have similar traumas and backgrounds come together and share stories. The cast, composer and director are all Scottish mixed ethnicity/black women and we have all encountered similar manifestations of racism growing up in Scotland. It has been intensely beautiful to share both tears and laughter throughout the process of making this play.
“Hannah’s writing is phenomenal. Her use of language describes so accurately the intricate complexities of racism and state violence, yet she tackles these hard hitting issues with a fierce vulnerability and grace which demonstrates her profound talent as a poet, playwright and director.
“I saw my own experiences reflected more during this play than I have during my lifetime, which shows that the Black Scottish experience isn’t given the recognition it intrinsically deserves. It exemplifies that the voices of those who stand outside the illusion of Scottish exceptionalism need to be heard. Sheku’s death has symbolised this in the most tragic of ways and if we continue to deny the reality of the impact of colonialism and imperialism, and the racism that is bore from that then we fail to honour his death.”
Beldina Odenyo (Heir of the Cursed) a Kenyan composer and musician, brought up in Dumfriesshire, was brought in to add music to the production.
“The music in this play is very personal to me and was written with a lot of immediacy due to the nature of how I came to be involved with the project. However, I think that added a rawness, a vulnerability to it, and a sense of presence that might not have existed had I had more time to sit with my own pain instead of trying to write for Sheku and his family. I was of course very aware of Sheku Bayoh’s death at the hands of the police, and I have my own experience of police brutality so I had that pool to draw from.
“Music in general provides a supporting role and, if done well, can really elevate and carry the text and the actors, so I hope I’ve accomplished that and done so with my own Afro-Scottish voice.”
Fatima Uygun, long-standing anti-racism campaigner and Writer/Director of the political “musicals” Rent Strike and Strike a Light, worked as a consultant on the project. She told me of the importance of this production.
“The best of theatre, to me, has a political message. But Lament For Sheku Bayoh is not a didactic, campaigning political play. It looks at Sheku Bayoh as a person, a father, brother, son. Perhaps the best thing to take away from 2020 is that we need to listen to black voices, we need to see black people in the way that we see “any other” rather than “the” other. This play asks us to do that”.
You can watch Hannah Lavery in conversation with Tomiwa Folorusno below