Lockerbie questioned on the Maltese stage
Fact and fiction blur into each other in The Lockerbie Bomber. David Schembri speaks to director Herman Grech on the importance of questioning.
Pan Am Flight 103 from London Heathrow to JFK International Airport in New York on December 21, 1988, never made it across the Atlantic. The Boeing 747 exploded and crashed into the small Scottish town of Lockerbie. All 259 on board the plane and 11 Lockerbie residents were killed.
The bomb behind the UK’s biggest terrorist attack to date is thought to have left Malta, and a Maltese shopkeeper’s evidence was instrumental in convicting Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for the bombing.
“The more I read about Lockerbie, the more I started to feel it has all the hallmarks of a theatre production; it’s a drama, it’s a real-life story with all the conspiracy theories, and, what’s more, there’s a link to Malta,” says Herman Grech, who is staging Kenneth Ross’s The Lockerbie Bomber at St James Cavalier from November 1.
“I got to know about the script through Robert Forrester, who’s in the Justice for Megrahi Group. I got to know him personally, and he pointed me to this brand new play. I read the script and found it really works,” Grech says.
This play marks a marriage between Grech’s job as a journalist – he is Times of Malta’s Head of Media – and his theatre career, which had taken a backseat as his responsibilities at the news organisation increased.
His familiarity with the case, along with the fact that two journalists feature heavily in the play, make him feel very comfortable with the script.
“The script is so well-researched – from the description of the plane crash to the information being given by the journalists, everything is so true. The author describes it as ‘faction’ – a mixture of fact and fiction. There is fiction of course in it, but a lot of the information being fed out is so true; documented in most places. I see more fact than fiction, in reality,” Grech says.
Indeed, if the play’s emphasis on the conspiracy theories is right, what has been accepted as fact might indeed be the fiction in this case.
“The world has been sold the idea that one man on his own planted a bomb on an Air Malta flight en route to Frankfurt en route to Heathrow. The bomb was placed on a specific point on the aircraft, which then blew up over Lockerbie. That is what Megrahi went down for, but there are several conspiracy theories, and this play looks at a number of them, one being that this could have been payback by Iran after an American warship downed a passenger plane just months before Lockerbie,” Grech says.
Although the play reaches certain conclusions, Grech believes the questions it triggers off are more important.
“Lockerbie will always remain mired in controversy and conspiracy theories, and I don’t think anyone will say ‘this really happened’. I think the play really helps the audience at least ask the questions.”
On May 20, 2012, Megrahi, the man known as the Lockerbie Bomber died of prostate cancer in Tripoli; he had been released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009. The play is set in 2011, and the journalists are investigating why the so-called Lockerbie Bomber was released from prison.
“Would you let go of somebody who has gone down for causing the biggest terrorist attack in the UK? People really need to ask that question. Serial murderers normally die in prison, even if they’re sick,” Grech points out.
Beyond asking the questions, Grech believes that theatre can help illustrate the story better, and introduce the whole saga to young people who could not understand the significance of Lockerbie when the tragedy unfolded.
“I went to watch this play in England… and it sets you thinking, beyond what we’re seeing on stage, this really happened. We’re talking about a real-life story so beyond the theatre aspect of it, we’re talking about real-life facts,” Grech says.
To simplify the story for stage, he has taken out some details which could be distracting, and he has opted to illustrate parts of the story using footage on four screens in the theatre.
“Not everybody reads newspapers, not everyone is even interested when we write about Lockerbie, so it’s another medium of exposing the subject to the audience. People might show up and say this is a load of rubbish; these are all conspiracy theories. And it’s the theatre now giving us conspiracy theories, not the media,” Grech says.
“But the stage can be the right medium to get through to certain people. At least we would have led people into asking questions. That’s even why the poster by Mike Ross is designed in a question mark – we need to ask. There’s nothing worse than sitting. We can’t sit down and believe anything politicians or even the media are telling us.”
The play has had the blessing of Lockerbie campaigner Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the bombing. Swire will be present for the opening night, and will be taking questions from the audience after the play.
As for the play itself, Grech counts himself lucky to have got the actors he wanted for all the roles.
“I’ve worked with all save two – I never worked with Julia Calvert or with Michael Basmadjian – but I know them personally. I was aware of the fortes of each one; it also helped that Denise Mulholland, one of my favourite actresses, who plays the mother, is Scottish. She helped with the accents. You can’t get better than getting the likes of Alan Paris, Manuel Cauchi and Alan Montanaro in the same play.
Again, it’s a first for Montanaro, who’s playing a rare serious part. And again, he’s doing a very good job of the whole thing,” Grech says.
“The script is written in an honest way, in terms of what it does. Wouldn’t relatives of the victims really want to know the truth? Knowing that a play like this has Swire’s blessing makes me feel more comfortable.
“Swire actually said it’s important for this play to be staged in Malta, because the Maltese deserve to know whether Malta was used as a transit point for the bomb. There will always be people who think that Megrahi was the guilty one and that’s it. I just hope that if some of the cynical ones actually watch it, it might even tease them into – again – asking questions and demanding answers.”
The Lockerbie Bomber will be staged at St James Cavalier on November 1-3, 8-10.