Hannah Lavery: 'My way in is to ask, who is at the edges, in the silence?'

Hannah Lavery often tells stories about people on the margins. Now, with four new projects premiering in one month, their voices are being heard.

Playwright and poet Hannah Lavery

IT’S A BIT like buses: all new theatre projects on hold for 16 months, and then four come along at once. Playwright Hannah Lavery is spinning plates as commissions come to fruition this August for the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe, Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s summer programme.

The most high profile of these is Lament for Sheku Bayoh, the story of a young black man who died in policy custody in Scotland in 2015, which was staged as a rehearsed reading at EIF in 2019 and released in a digital version last year in partnership with National Theatre of Scotland. This month it will be performed in front of a live audience at the Lyceum Theatre.

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“I’m really glad because I wrote the play with the sense that it would be received with other people, communally,” Lavery says. “What laments do is offer an opportunity for us to come together and stand in solidarity with those who miss Sheku Bayoh, to be witness to these events. For me, that is the heart of the play.”

She was compelled by the little-known story of Bayoh, a 31-year-old gas engineer from Kirkcaldy. Many questions about his death remain unanswered; an inquiry led by Lord Bracadale is ongoing, asking whether his race played a part. While the case has some points of comparison with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, there was no public outcry. “Instead, there is a huge turning away from the story,” says Lavery. “I wanted to ask why, particularly in Scotland, we turn away from anything that would ask us to confront race in this country.

“So many of the narratives around his death were racialised. I wanted to ask why these narratives were allowed to flourish because of a particular way in which we are invested in seeing ourselves. I thought about how it felt to me as a woman of colour, the child of a black man and the mother of a brown boy.”

While Lavery describes herself first as a poet, and says all her work “comes from a poetry place”, she is becoming increasingly acclaimed as a playwright and theatre-maker. She has received a New Playwrights Award from Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, was selected for the Scottish Voices strand of BBC Writers’ Room, and by Owen Sheers as one of his Ten Writers Asking Questions That Will Shape Our Future for the International Literature Showcase.

In a very different project, Eavesdropping (Walk This Play) for ThickSkin, presented as part of the Traverse’s Fringe programme, she and co-writer Sarah McGillivray have created a tapestry of voices and stories to be listened to as ‘audience members’ walk a circular route through central Edinburgh.

“It became about all the stories that we walk past, these other lives that are going on around us,” she says. “We started with a tagline from an imagined Traverse play - ‘I will be heard’ - and followed that thought through lot of different characters. At the heart of it is a question about who gets heard, who gets to tell their story.”

Meanwhile, the stories of the past year have helped shape Thirteen Fragments, a “poetry dance film” which will premiere online on 9 August as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s ‘Curious’ programme, one of a number of RSE commissions looking at life after Covid-19. It saw Lavery collaborate with composer and musician Beldina Odenyo, choreographer Natali McCleary (both of whom also work on Lament) and filmmaker Beth Chalmers. A co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, it takes as its spine a long-form poem about the experiences of women through the pandemic year.

“A lot of people talk about how resilient women have been, but is it really what we want? Do we want more than just to survive?” asks Lavery. “I look at my daughter and I think, I don’t want that for her, I don’t want her to have a life where it’s just about surviving and being rewarded for surviving such crap. I want her to have big dreams, and to know she is going to be safe to have those big dreams.”

And, in a new commission for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s outdoor performance space, Lavery is finding the women’s voices in one of Scotland’s most famous stories. Invited to adapt Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for a solo performer, she chose to do it for one woman.

“There are all these women on the edges of Jekyll & Hyde, the servant, the cook and the woman who witnesses the murder, and I’ve created a couple of other characters. I was really interested in the way men are always so shocked at other men’s bad behaviour, but women often aren’t. The women living with that good man might be pretty aware of his shadow side!

“Being asked to adapt Jekyll and Hyde was a terrifying undertaking. But there was something exciting about saying: what if it’s a woman who changes and transforms into different characters? My way in - which maybe speaks to all my work - was to ask who’s at the margins, who’s at the edges of the story? Who’s in the silence?”

Lament for Sheku Bayoh is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 25-28 August, www.eif.co.uk; the digital version will be available to watch online 25-31 August, see eif.co.uk/at-home. Eavesdropping (Walk This Play) is available from 20 August at www.traverse.co.uk; Thirteen Fragments premieres online on 9 August at 7.30pm; www.rse-curious.com; Jekyll and Hyde will have six outdoor performances at Pitlochry Festival Theatre between 18 August and 8 September, www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

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