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Fringe Online 2020

Lament for Sheku Bayou

National Theatre of Scotland

Genre: Drama, Fringe Online Theatre, Fringe Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre of Scotland


Low Down

We begin with a soulful rendition of A Man’s A Man: oh, then we wish that he were. From there, there are Scots voices: people of colour voicing the narrative of a young man who was killed in custody in a Kirkaldy street. Managing to interweave the story through clips form news reports, now voiced by the actors, first-hand testimony and the observations of a community not just in shock but developing their anger, it floats between a variety of processes. These include monologue, duologue discussions and song that lilts the tragedy with a dignity undercut by the end where we get the images of a family, accompanied a lawyer standing outside of a litany of official looking buildings which continue to show how far away they are from the justice and equality promised by Burns at the beginning.  The story is a simple and tragic one. The police received reports of a man of colour with a machete running amok in Kirkcaldy. They attended and found a man of colour. They apprehended him, restrained him on the ground with eight or nine police officers managing to take him down and hold him on the ground, they on top. He died. Since then, 2005, nobody has been charged in connection with his death. An inquiry has been launched and it is due to take several years to report. Justice awaits.


This is a tragedy told with dignity. Such dignity is not without its anger and you get that throughout. The story has enough in its power to tell the tale and ask your answer. Bringing such a tale to the stage is absolutely right for our times and right for our nation and right for a National Theatre. To hear the accent of my birth used to highlight the injustice of my fellow man hit hard and hit home.

This is not about street names or cultural misappropriation. This is not far distant on plantations nor about reparations for past misdeeds. This sullied our doorsteps first by the event itself and then by the way in which we, as a nation, have failed to respond through our system of justice. From the theatricality of this piece we are spared the disappointing answers the family must have borne witness to over the years, but have the reports from the outsiders, the images of the funeral, the spoken word, the simple outrage, simply told and understood with incredulity.

It is, however, easy to get caught up in the polemic and avoid the nature of the event. It is a theatrical treat.

Performances were of the highest order and you truly felt that the actors had the significance of the story not just in their shoulders but also as part of their psyche. There was a feeling that as they gave themselves to the power of the piece, they gave a piece of themselves in the telling; powerful stuff.

Sharply directed, leaving the pace at its best – fast enough to keep us in shock but contemplative enough to allow the story to breathe and develop – we had the story at the heart of the piece; it needed plastic chairs and not comfortable armchairs to sit underneath.

Actors and directors, though, need a script to equal their passion and here it is a brilliant piece of work. It is a poetic masterpiece. Especially notable were the discussions in the cafe, the use of news reports to shape progress, the meeting in the lawyer’s office, the story of the police horses in George Square and the direct address throughout.

The music that accompanied it all just added to it and made it a significant theatrical event. That is in essence how we ought to judge this. Filmed with a theatrical background there is little doubt that we have a piece that deserves a stage. Once we are through the pandemic the power of this as a challenge to those in authority MUST have the opportunity of emerging into its natural habitat.

It is a story of a young man, Sheku Bayou, aged 31, a gas engineer, husband and father of 2, who died in police custody when 8 or 9 police officers apprehended him and held him until he died. They could have been attending a terrorist incident; they weren’t. they could have been dealing with a man who was wielding a machete; he didn’t even have a knife. The most fantastic bit about this, is that these facts were never lost throughout, and therefore should never be forgotten.