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Gareth Morgan interviews MICHAEL EATON

Michael Eaton, writer of the forthcoming Nottingham Playhouse production Families of Lockerbie, is a Nottingham based, award winning dramatist. His most recognisable and famous work has been in writing for television including drama-documentaries like Why Lockerbie?, Shoot To Kill and Shipman whilst his critically acclaimed film Fellow Traveller, about a blacklisted screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood writing a screen version of Robin Hood, won Best Screenplay at the 1989 British Film Awards. He is also Visiting Professor in the School of Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

We asked him about how the Families of Lockerbie project came about, how creating plays for theatre contrasts with his other work and his plans for writing and producing more work in the region.

Gareth Morgan: So Michael, how did you come to write Families of Lockerbie?

Michael Eaton: Over the last 21 years, since the disaster took place, I have taken a close interest in the developing concerns of the Lockerbie story becoming increasingly confused and frustrated that those involved are no closer to finding the truth than when I first encountered it in 1988-89 whilst writing Why Lockerbie? for Channel 4 and HBO. Since then I have tried to return to the theme by dramatising an account of the courtroom using the transcripts of the event for television however this is yet to be produced. Lockerbie and the events surrounding the disaster weren’t actually what brought me to the Playhouse for this project either. Giles Croft [Playhouse Artistic Director] and I where discussing another piece I had been working on about noted Victorian criminal Charlie Peace when the news of Mr Al-Megrahi’s release was announced. We got chatting about that and my connections with the story so really the really process started there.

GM: You were already keen on writing about Lockerbie, but what about the medium? How did writing for stage differ from your other work as many would know you primarily as a screenwriter?

ME: The approach I took to this piece was very different to that which I use when working for radio or television. From the start I was told I was only able to write for four actors which whilst restrictive allowed me to investigate the ideas from a new angle.

With this in mind I knew I couldn’t have a large host of characters so settled on creating three central characters which corresponded to different generalised reactions that I saw from the families in the wake of Al-Megrahi’s release: Firstly, the understandable want for revenge, which I call the Old Testament response and see as comparable to the US justice system; secondly, the frustration with what can be seen as an unsatisfactory treatment of the whole case, from Fhima’s innocence to Al-Megrahi’s appeal now never to be heard because of his compassionate release; and finally an approach of forgiveness and conciliation which was denied to their loved ones but should not be denied in return – do unto others as you would have done unto you, this I call the New Testament response.

I will stress that the characters I created from this are fictional and that these approaches to their character are entirely mine taken from generalisations I have made. This was a significant decision, to work in this way, and a departure to my normal practice when working with real events as I left behind the heavily research-based drama-documentary style to instead create from these responses three characters of pure fiction. These characters then being woven into the factual narrative of the Lockerbie story over the last 21 years.

In this respect, the play has developed into a hybrid, taking onboard my past practise from working at Granada Studios making drama-documentaries in the 80s and 90s, other styles such as verbatim theatre and the ‘speculative’ drama documentary similar to that of Peter Morgan who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon and pure drama which I have written.

I understand that this can seem a little confusing between what is quoted and what I have created but in the sections which are taken from source material, especially the court transcripts, then I have used the words that have been officially reported as being said. When working with real life characters and events you can be accused of putting words in people’s mouths so using transcripts has been key to these moments. Also, where I have written about an event that actually happened, whilst I have had the freedom to dramatise, the audience must always know and fully accept that this did take place and that I truly believe that they happened in the way that I have presented them. Some in my school of work see fictional drama as a last resort when they cannot find the documentary sources from which to recreate, whilst I reject this as a playwright – it is my job to dramatise these events – I do use the verbatim transcripts if they are available.

GM: And what about Nottingham Playhouse? You’re a local writer, have you written work that’s been performed there before?

ME: I’ve worked with Nottingham Playhouse twice before as a playwright, both back in the 90s. The first was a community drama which was performed in Newark but produced by the Playhouse called The Leaves of Life. This was a fantastic project to be involved with as I had the freedom to write specifically for and about all the different people and groups that were involved, including a choir and a jazz band although the jazz band got booked for a tour and had to pull out! The second was at the Playhouse and directed by another Nottingham native Jonathan Church. The piece, Angels Rave On, looked at how religion had taken on new and different significances in modern society and formed part of a trilogy of which the other parts were TV dramas. I also hope to continue my association when my next play, which as I said before was what me and Giles were discussing when this project presented its self, about how the story of Charlie Peace, a notorious 19th century thief and murderer, became a popular myth – very fitting for Nottingham I thought!

Families of Lockerbie runs from Thursday 10th until Saturday 19th June at Nottingham Playhouse with a special, free pre-show event on Wednesday 16th at 6pm in which Playwright David Edgar will be in conversation with Michael discussing the topic ‘How real is real?’ in relation to verbatim and documentary theatre. Michael is also appearing at Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday 19th June, 11.30-12.30, to discuss “chronicling controversy”. The session costs £4/£3 and is taking place at Lowdham Methodist Chapel on Main Street.

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