Lament for Sheku Bayoh is a response to the 2015 death of an unarmed black man, Sheku Bayoh, whilst in police custody in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Up to six police officers were lying on top of Bayoh at once, leading to him losing consciousness. He never regained it, and his body was covered in bruises and lacerations. Five years later, his family are still campaigning for justice – no charges have been brought to any of the police officers involved. While a Scottish Government public inquiry has been set-up, it may take three to four years.
Written and directed by Hannah Lavery, this play partly takes a documentary form – not quite a verbatim piece, but the above facts are drilled into the audience over and over. Information and statements from those involved are repeated regularly (“The BBC understands…” “He was unarmed” “I begged the police to get off him”), which both highlights the misjustice and creates a lyricism that is present throughout the whole piece (helped by the onstage music and singing from guitarist Beldina Odenyo). This poetic form leads to a more emotional response as the play develops.
Lavery describes this as a personal response to Bayoh’s death, but she does an excellent job of incorporating numerous different voices through Lament. We hear from the perspective of the family, lawyers, police, onlookers, and those further removed. This helps to build a panoramic view of the incident and illustrates the discrepancies (or lies) in the police’s version of events – such as 6ft 4in officers weighing 25 stone describing Bayoh as “massive”, despite him only being 5ft 10in and 12 stone.
This range of voices requires versatility from the actors (Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther, and Courtney Stoddart) and they all provide shapeshifting performances. Each of them demonstrate great control over the conflicting viewpoints, which prevents any of the scenes from becoming confusing, despite the vast amount of characters.
The piece is strongest when it expands away from the event and becomes a mirror to Scotland’s flaws. Lament confronts the image of Scotland as a safe place that is more progressive than other parts of the UK, exploring how it has its own problems with racism, stemming from its core and spreading out across the nation. Instead of being a place that is inclusive and welcoming, “belonging is conditional” in Scotland and acceptance is only “skin-deep”.
Bayoh is an example of this – the fact that he was a black man meant that him acting “out of character” was enough for the duty of care not to be given to him. And so, he lost his life. Though this is a lament, there’s an undercurrent of rage in Lavery’s writing, determinedly pointing out injustice and how dangerous it is to be black, particularly as a man. The music from Odenyo serves as a counterbalance to some of the anger, providing a more elegiac tone.
There are some limitations to Lament as a whole production. Everything on stage is a little too static, and the show relies on camera cuts to create energy, which makes it too cinematic in nature. There is some movement that gives the space depth, but for the most part the actors all spend too much time rooted to three socially distanced chairs.
Despite these weaknesses in direction though, there is a searing, urgent power in Lavery’s words. This is an eruption of grief and rage that brings attention and focus to a problem that the UK and Scotland likes to pretend is elsewhere. Exactly what theatre should do.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh is playing online until November 21, for more information, see the National Theatre of Scotland website.