Lockerbie Unfinished Business

David Benson cracks open a can of worms in a play Andrew Johnston describes as 'essential'

With the crisis in Libya dominating global headlines, the time has never been more right for actor David Benson to crack open the can of worms that is Lockerbie: Unfinished Business. Benson’s uncompromising one-man play concerns the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan American World Airways Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is now alleged to have ordered the outrage, and controversy still rages over the early release from a Scottish prison of the only person convicted, the Libyan airline security head Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. 'Unfinished business', indeed. 

Benson’s acclaimed production has drawn an attentive, though sparse, crowd to Lisburn’s Island Arts Centre. Perhaps the subject matter is just too heavy for a Friday night. Still, judging by the number of jaws hitting the floor throughout, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business hits the spot.

The setting is incongruous. Amongst the audience are relatives of some of the Omagh bomb victims, who make their way into the studio theatre against a backdrop of choral singing (there’s a recital in the foyer tonight). Once the studio doors are shut behind us, the mood is set for a gruelling journey into one man’s quest for truth and justice.

Benson, who has previously essayed the likes of Noël Coward and Kenneth Williams, here portrays Dr Jim Swire, whose 24-year-old daughter Flora was one of the 270 killed in Lockerbie. It’s a master class in controlled rage and gritty resolve.

The lengthy speeches, detailed timelines and summation of a sprawling and often-botched investigation would be a challenge for any actor. Benson pulls it off, only fluffing his lines once or twice (and even then, it fits within the character of Swire). The script, drawn from the doctor’s own manuscripts, suggests that the deeper one investigates Lockerbie, the fewer answers there are. Happily, Benson’s writing, while covering all the necessary exposition, manages to stay just the right side of information overload.

The most potent material concerns how badly the system let the victims’ families down and how shadily the various authorities have behaved. As well as criticising the British government, the CIA and Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, Swire sets his stall out on al-Megrahi: ‘The scandal is not that he was released, but that he was ever imprisoned in the first place.’ After hearing the ins and outs of this case, one feels less compelled than ever to trust politicians.

The performance is followed by an hour-long question-and-answer session, with valuable contributions from academics and members of the public alike. The emotional testimonies of the Omagh survivors have many in the room welling up. It’s rare that a piece of art could be described as essential, but Lockerbie: Unfinished Business comes close. With this and the recent Adolf, the Island Arts Centre seems to be cornering the market in hard-hitting, provocative theatre.

Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide to see what else is showing at the Island Arts Centre