Monday, 11 November 2013

Great sorrow, dastardly acts

[This is the headline over a review in yesterday’s edition of the Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times of the Valletta production of Kenneth Ross’s play The Lockerbie Bomber.  I am grateful to Herman Grech, head of media at The Times of Malta and the director of the play, for sending me the text. It reads as follows:]

Paul Xuereb finds that The Lockerbie Bomber manages to shed new light and raise more questions about the shocking tragedy that captured the attention of the whole world.

Kenneth Ross’s The Lockerbie Bomber focuses on the events following that exceedingly terrible terrorist act, one that unfortunately was said to have had an important Maltese connection.

By now, this connection clearly appears to have been fabricated as a desperate attempt to pin the crime on the Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Megrahi was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment, but was later released from prison and allowed to return to Libya, where he died some three years later. His early release on humanitarian grounds fuelled the view that he was innocent and had, in fact, been a scapegoat.

The play comes with a strong script that is meant to emphasise the poverty of the evidence against Megrahi, and to urge the reopening of the case.

For many members of the audience, including myself, viewing this play was made more poignant by the presence of Jim Swire, whose daughter died at Lockerbie, and who has never given up believing in Megrahi’s innocence. He was one of those who lobbied for the need to reopen the case.

Herman Grech, directing the play on behalf of DnA, brought together a fine cast, using the intimate interior of the round the- atre at St James Cavalier to advantage.

The set draws audiences into the piercing sorrows of the victims’ families, making us shrink in horror at the immoral, and sometimes dastardly, behaviour of those who are determined to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Computer screens show maps and video sequences to the audience, but it is what is said and done in the play that produces the greatest horror. The set itself is minimalistic, the major feature being a stage strewn with the debris of the crash. The only seat is a much-battered aeroplane passenger’s seat, behind which no member of the audience should be seated as my wife was.

The scenes follow each other without pause, and the opening scene introduces us to Bill and Liz, a couple whose life has become black and meaningless, following the death of their young son on the fatal plane.

Bill, a detailed portrait by Manuel Cauchi, is a broken man who finds his solace only in drink. Liz (Denise Mulholland), on the other hand, is made of stronger stuff, though her sorrow is even greater than Bill’s. With the death, she has lost not only her son, but also her God, in whose providence she previously believed so strongly. This last rankles most of all and, when interviewed by Ron (Mikhail Basmadjian), a Scottish journalist, about her loss, Liz brings out the play’s most chilling line: “There is no god. We’re on our own. Write that down.”

This she says with great restraint, but the bitterness is clear to all the audience.

Earlier on, Mulholland will have tortured our imagination with her description of a sky full of bodies falling to a terrible death. Later, this torture continues as she wonders whether her son might have been one of those who fell without losing consciousness.

Just a little later, we are introduced to two sinister personages. One of them a real bastard of a man – a CIA official called Tucker, who is brought to life in all his nastiness by Alan Paris. The other is Bruce, played by Alan Montanaro. Bruce is an MI6 official, grey and unprepossessing, and very willing to play ball with Tucker, so as to keep things unchanged in the Lockerbie case.

However, there is a snag in this plan; Ron has a hold over Bruce and gets the latter to tell him what had really happened in the Lockerbie investigation. How, for instance, the US use of Syrian airspace, when attacking Iraq, made it impossible to proceed against the Syrian bomb-maker strongly suspected of having made the Lockerbie bomb.

This information encourages Ron and his journalistic partner Maggie (Julia Calvert) to extend their investigation into the Lockerbie case and to plan a big article about it. It is this that leads to the play’s most gripping scene – and I have to add that I have rarely seen a theatrical scene that has frozen me like this one.

Bruce may not have Tucker’s killer instinct, but he shares the CIA man’s utter amorality. In this scene, he tries to keep his facial expressions under control, allowing a wicked look or gesture to reveal what is working within his brain.

Basmadjian’s Ron can play dirty when it comes to getting journalistic material, such as when he persuades Liz to give him a photo of her young son, or when he blackmails Bruce into giving him confidential information. But in a play where we hear of so many dishonest and dastardly acts being performed, and where we see a pair like Tucker and Bruce before us, we still get to like Ron, because what he tries to do is admirable.

Matters in the Lockerbie case remain at a standstill, and the play’s ending makes this clear. Only the Q&A session given by Dr Swire at the end of the play shows that there are people who are still fighting for something important to be done about it.

The Lockerbie Bomber shows today [Sunday], [next] Friday and Saturday (extra runs) at 8pm at St James Cavalier.

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