Lament for Sheku Bayoh review – a stark critique of Scotland’s self-image | Stage

‘It’s not Black Lives Matter,” says one of the characters in Hannah Lavery’s damning new play. “This is Scotland. It’s not the same.”

The police forcefully hold a young black man on the ground. Within 90 minutes, the father of two is dead. But this is not Minneapolis in 2020. Rather, this is Kirkcaldy in 2015 and the man is 31-year-old gas engineer Sheku Bayoh. Behaving erratically in the early hours of a May morning, Bayoh was held down by several officers. By the time they stood up he was unconscious.

Although no police officers were charged for his death, the Scottish government has set up a statutory public inquiry. It could last three or four years.

In the meantime, Lavery’s play points to the case’s contradictory evidence, such as the 6ft 4in officers who described the 5ft 10in Bayoh as “massive”. Racism played a part, she suggests, but her lament is for more than an isolated injustice. It is for all those who live in a country where “belonging is conditional”.

Watch the trailer for Lament for Sheku Bayoh

Scotland, she says, likes to see itself as liberal and welcoming. The gospel-inflected rendition of Burns’s A Man’s a Man for a’ That with which guitarist Beldina Odenyo begins the show suggests a land of tolerance and inclusiveness. But those attributes, argues Lavery, are “only skin deep”, as anyone who is continually reminded of their race will tell you.

Showing for two days in this National Theatre of Scotland co-production with the Edinburgh international festival and the Lyceum, Lament for Sheku Bayoh repeats verbatim quotes until they sound like poetry (“The BBC understands… the BBC understands…”) and loops around the fateful morning like a trauma you can’t stop thinking about.

Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart give austere, heartfelt performances, switching deftly through the script’s collage of spoken word and fragmentary scenes. As a production, it is too static, caught uncertainly between theatre and film, but as a voice in the dark it is impassioned, poetic and alive with political import.

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