[The following is a review by Libby Purves in today's edition of The Times of the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre's production of The Families of Lockerbie:]
What do you most want from documentary theatre? Information, emotion, enlightenment? During Michael Eaton’s take on the fallout since Lockerbie, set on a bare stage framed in a faint suggestion of twisted metal shards, the question hung in the air like the fumes of aviation fuel remembered too graphically by the families in 1988.
If you want painstaking journalism, here it is. Eaton — who wrote a 1990 documentary when the theory of Syrian guilt prevailed — takes pains. The programme offers a statement of intent, a timeline, and list of the dead. Much is verbatim clipboard-and-lectern work, using evidence and speeches to chart processes and politics which led to the trial of two Libyans by Scottish judges in the Netherlands, acquitting one and convicting Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, who was released nine months ago with “three months to live”, fêted in Libya, and is now collaborating on a documentary affirming his innocence.
We knew all this. A dramatist’s question must be different: when does justice become mere revenge? When is mercy an insult to the victims? And when victims disagree, can they still stand together or is a fresh enmity born? We see two fictional families: British parents Geoffrey and Maureen (Robert Benfield and Joan Moon), and Laura (Jennifer Woodward), widow of a US Marine. They are brought together in a TV studio by a host (David Beckford). Other parts are taken by each with neat definition. At first they bond in grief; as years go by Laura becomes a shrill Republican militarist, Geoffrey forensically doubtful about al-Megrahi’s guilt, and Maureen gently grieves without her boy.
They are to some extent caricatures (surely some American families are liberal, some British victims angrier). Before any theatrical judgment I must record that some relatives object to the play. Even if it were an artistic triumph, it is their right to dislike it. This was mass murder. You can argue that such wickedness deserves no better than to die in prison in a strange land. The quandary of compassion and recovery, therefore, should be the engine of the play.
In the last eight of its unbroken 105 minutes, that finally happens. “My husband would want me to fight!” rages Laura. “My son would want the truth” says Geoffrey. And Maureen, “My son would want me to forgive.” Their final, antiphonal speeches are moving and right; the self-exculpatory statement of al-Megrahi a raw coda. But I would have liked more character, more philosophy, more imagined argument and less verbatim prose. A Hare or Frayn or Stoppard propels history into universality. This author remains too much the documentarist. But in the final moments, he showed what he could have done, and maybe will.
[The following is an excerpt from a review by Ian Charles Douglas on the Guide2Nottingham website:]
Some subjects defy criticism. And this act of mass murder is among them. For those of us old enough to remember, we remember it vividly. We remember where we were when we learned of the disaster, who told us, and the cold chill that slipped into our hearts.
Thankfully then, it’s in the safe hands of Michael Eaton, one of Nottingham’s most experienced scribes and well known for television works such as Shipman and Signs and Wonders.
Lockerbie, as he reminds us, was a turning point. The Cold War was ending and a new age of terrorism was upon us. And with it came a new style of international justice, or rather the lack of it. Worse, the ones left behind, the bereaved, became pawns in what Kipling called the Great Game, the struggle for control of the Middle East. (...)
The cast of four have to step into many shoes, not only the families, but journalists, politicians, judges, suspects and diplomats. Full credit then to the actors, jumping from accent to accent, juggling their roles with ease. David Beckford, as the interviewer, does a great job of holding together the threads of the story. Jennifer Woodward is Laura, the American wife who meets Geoffrey (Robert Benfield) and Maureen (Joan Moon) the English parents among the wrecked fuselage.
At first they become companions in sorrow. But as long years pass, a gulf as wide as the ocean separating our two countries opens between them. Anger erupts, following upon the heels of their great loss, numbing the pain and filling the void. Will they reconnect and together make some sort of sense to their loss, however heartrending?
But alongside this question there are so many more. Was there a conspiracy? Were the Iranians involved? Did our noble leaders give into the needs of the oil business? Was the convicted man an innocent scapegoat or a mass-murderer? Should he have faced the death penalty?
These very serious and never more relevant issues are brought to life in a kind of fictionalised docudrama. The production bravely confronts terrible truths, without a single drop of mawkishness or exploitation.
As I walked out of the Playhouse, into crowds happily looking forward to the weekend, I acknowledged a debt of thanks. The cast and crew have reminded me of the suffering of the families of Lockerbie, a suffering that has not yet ended.