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By Mark Fisher

Published: 10/8/2010

ALL these headlines have held our attention at some point in the past five years and have variously led to political campaigns, new legislation and charity-raising efforts. But what happens when the news agenda moves on? For those who have lost their homes, been bereaved or suffered an injustice, the story does not go away even if the journalists do.

It leaves a vacuum that the Fringe is only too willing to fill. In Edinburgh this year are plays that remind us of the devastation of the Australian bushfires in 2009, the wreckage created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the carnage of the London 7/7 terror attacks in the same year and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

But what can such plays achieve that newspapers can’t? For Siobhan O’Loughlin, author of The Rope in Your Hands, theatre offers a chance to present a more complex picture. Drawing on interviews with residents of New Orleans, her play presents a collage of a dozen or so sometimes conflicting stories about a hurricane that killed over 1,800 people.

Had she taken a more polemical approach, she would have focused only on the disproportionate suffering of the city’s least privileged people, but O’Loughlin found that the people themselves told a different story.

“You might think everyone would say, ‘Oh yes, of course, it’s a question of race,'” she says. “In fact, some characters who are black will say that’s not what’s happening here. There are others higher up the [class] scale who’ll say it’s something else and then some people, of course, address it as you think they might.”

By avoiding the familiar voices of politicians and TV presenters, O’Loughlin is creating a different sort of reportage. “It’s allowing the voices of residents to be heard on a larger scale,” she says. Because it is a play and not a newspaper, an alternative message emerges. Although she has her own opinions about the way the disaster was handled, O’Loughlin found the more important lesson was to do with caring for people in immediate need.

“My thesis is that if we’re able to help, we probably should,” she says. “I’m not yelling at George Bush – it’s a wider call to action for humanity.”

Ali Kennedy-Scott takes a similar approach in The Day the Sky Turned Black. She was a drama student in the UK when the Black Saturday bushfires started raging in her native Australia where eventually 173 people would die. Interviewing the survivors on her return home was her way of getting to grips with the tragedy. “When you’re overseas and something that devastating is happening to your country, you feel so connected to it,” she says. “When you look at the footage and you see this wall of flames, four storeys high, towering over the treetops, it’s one of the most frightening hell-like things and that gets your attention whether you’re from there or not.”

Much like O’Loughlin, Kennedy-Scott was most inspired by the way people supported each other. It is this human dimension that turns the story from a news report into a play. “I want to give people an insight into the experience and also honour the sacrifices and the people who were lost,” she says.

She has a political purpose too. The fires were stared in part by arson and she was fascinated to understand why someone would light a fire on the hottest day on record with winds of 100km/hour. She asked a psychologist for a profile of a typical arsonist and used that information to build a fictional character of an arsonist’s mother.

“There are important messages I want to get across, particularly in the issues of arson prevention,” she says, pointing out that no preventative programmes exist for the over-18s in Australia. “This essentially means an arsonist will keep re-offending until they’re put in jail. I want to take the show to Canberra after I do it in Edinburgh, get some politicians in and get something changed.”

If she succeeds, she’ll be following in the footsteps of the 2008 Fringe production of Deep Cut. This drama galvanised the campaign for a public enquiry into the deaths of several recruits at the MoD’s Deepcut training barracks. In this case, the government has continued to dig its feet in, but it shows how a successful high-profile play can have a disproportionate impact on the political agenda.

David Benson would surely like that to be the case with Lockerbie: Unfinished Business. As previously reported in The Scotsman, the play is based on the experiences of Dr Jim Swire whose daughter was killed in the aircraft that exploded over the Scottish town. Believing the convicted man Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi to be innocent, he wants the real criminals to be found. By bringing Swire’s true life story to the stage, Benson hopes to expose a miscarriage of justice.

“There’s an advantage doing this kind of show on the Fringe because one can speak freely,” he says. “The mainstream media are very constrained in what they can say. They refer to Megrahi as ‘the terrorist’, as they sort of have to, never mentioning the huge doubts about the conviction. A play can show the powers-that-be that people are paying attention and that the story is being kept alive in a form that has a unique power.”

In contrast to the other three playwrights, Molly Naylor has her own perspective to throw on the headlines. She was on one of the trains that was bombed in the attack that brought central London to a standstill on 7 July 2005. Five years on, she has used the experience to reflect on the contrast between ordinary experience and major events.

“When you read something in a paper it’s presented very differently – it’s the top end, the sensational,” she says. “But when it happens to you, for a while, it’s just a normal event.  So rather than a play about the 7/7 bombings, it’s a coming-of-age story with a twist – the bombings being the twist. It sent my life on a completely different course, so it’s about how we deal with trauma and how we put things together again after they’ve been blown apart.”

The Day the Sky Turned Black, C Soco, until 30 August, 5:30pm; The Rope in Your Hands, Quaker Meeting House, 16-28 August, 6pm; Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 30 August, 2:30pm; Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You, The Zoo, until 30 August, 1:55pm.