Lockerbie: Unfinished Business Review
Why is it we always remember where we were when something bad happens? On the 21st of December 1988 I was sitting in the Cameo cinema awaiting the start of the evening film. Just as the auditorium lights began to dim and the gold curtains parted to reveal the screen, the friend I was with who’d been listening to the news on his radio walkman leaned over and told me that a large plane had crashed in a town about an hour's drive from where we were sitting.
The details of this breaking story were sketchy but neither of us could fully engage with the movie thereafter and at its conclusion we rushed home to our respective TVs to watch a real life drama unfold and try to take stock of the scale of the event.
Twenty two years later I once again find myself waiting for the lights to dim, this time in a small theatre, but once again I’m looking at a screen, this time a much smaller affair parked to the left of a table full of props on an otherwise empty stage.
Once again I’m connected to that fateful night. An hour and ten minutes later I make my way slowly out and see that some members of the audience are not quite getting up to leave for they’re still busy wiping away tears. A woman I pass in the front row is bent forward, looking at the ground by her feet and shaking her head. She’s as upset as she is angry.
And so just over an hour beforehand, the lights did eventually dim and on strides actor David Benson, well known to audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s full of purpose and determination and announces that he’d like to show us how to construct a bomb. Which he then proceeds to do, packing the explosives and timers into the same model of Toshiba radio which was the suspected device aboard Pan Am Flight 103.
And so begins a compelling and moving account of justice campaigner Jim Swire, who’s beautiful and youthful daughter Flora perished that night.
The 70-minute monologue is essentially a lecture, forensically examining the information and evidence that unfolded over the following years. This is blended in equal measure with his portrayal of a grieving father coming to terms with the loss and the impact of how years of campaigning affected him and his family.
Benson plays Swire as a decent, polite and stiff upper lip chap whose repressed grief and anger gives him the fuel to carry on with years of trying to investigate the real roots of the tragedy as various authorities, governments and media outlets try to bury the story and depict him as an oddball who just wouldn’t let it go.
And thank God he didn’t, for here we are once again, a society looking inwards at a lone champion bothering to unravel a multi-faceted crime which may one day reveal what many of us have long suspected, that Al Megrahi, the alleged and ultimately convicted terrorist had little if anything to do with the events of that fateful night.
The play examines two sides to the case. One is the initial investigation including a possible connection to the US downing of an Iranian passenger airliner six months prior to Lockerbie. There are also details of highly suspicious activity at Heathrow the night before and on the night Pan Am 103 departed, money trails connecting a known terrorist cell to the events, key witnesses having their evidence ignored and the revelation that the forensic experts were later discredited for being corrupt.
Then it moves onto the Megrahi trial where with the aid of the actual court transcripts we discover the chief witnesses couldn’t definitively identify Megrahi as the man they had seen in connection with preparations to destroy the plane. The reading out of these transcripts made the audience both laugh and reel with disbelief in equal measure. Benson has artfully weaved in just enough light relief to make palatable what might otherwise be unbearable.
Despite the many incredible details both told and displayed to the audience, it's Bensons depicting Swire’s first hearing of the news of his daughter's death, his repeated imagining of her death including her lengthy freefall to earth and his identifying of her body in a makeshift morgue along with other private family scenes that ram the importance of the investigative details home, forcing us to give a damn about it. The beauty of it here is in the simplicity and clarity with which it’s created and presented. There’s no tacky it’s-time-to-feel-sad music, there’s no melodrama, it’s a plain good old fashioned presentation of the facts and they're enough to prompt our tear ducts into action.
My first thought upon leaving was that there are some American senators and families of the victims that need to see this or at least look with some depth into the details of the case. If they did, it might help to explain to them why many of us on this side of the pond are a little mystified at their anger over Megrahi’s release (which of course without real context or anything to contradict them is still justified) when there’s been the feeling here for years that he should never have been convicted on such flimsy evidence.
As I say, it’s a feeling rather than a certainty but when so many people have such strong doubts including the father of a victim who’s not out for revenge, just truth, then perhaps it's time we shared this information with them so their grief isn’t misplaced. For how angry will they be when they find out that our supposedly impartial investigative abilities and our modern-day legal system has spectacularly failed them?
So this is utterly essential theatre, both political and profoundly humane that reminds us to never stop asking questions however uncomfortable, tedious and time consuming it may be.
Till 30 August, 2.30pm
For more information on the play and Jim Swire’s campaign go to www.davidbenson.info and www.lockerbietruth.com