Written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson. A thrilling modern tragedy about a Russian architect driven to revenge after losing his family in a plane crash. Cal MacAninch and Thusitha Jayasundera give electrifying performances in this searing new play about the human impulse to strike back. Inspired by real events. Nominated for three Off West End Theatre Awards.
My Eyes Went Dark by Matthew Wilkinson, 28 Aug, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
(See Human Factors at The Fringe for an introduction to this post.)
In 2002 a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev passenger jet en route to Barcelona collided with a DHL Boeing 757 cargo jet over Überlingen, southern Germany, while under air traffic control. Seventy one people died, 52 of which were children. The controller on duty instructed the Russian jet to descend, after noticing that the planes were on a collision course. Unbeknown to him, the onboard collision-avoidance systems (TCAS) on the aircraft issued instructions that contradicted the controller’s own instruction. The Russian pilots acted on the controller’s instruction, while the DHL pilots acted on that of TCAS (see here for a description of the accident and the aftermath).
This play is essentially a tragedy, inspired by real events, and concerns the aftermath of that accident. It takes place over the course of five years in Switzerland, Germany, and Ossetia. ‘Nikolai Koslov’ lost his two children and his wife in the accident. Koslov was a Russian architect working in France on a major new hotel build.
Koslov is consumed with grief, seething with a quiet anger at how such an accident could have occurred. He runs through the possible causes with a search team co-ordinator on the night of the accident, at the scene. He asks about the age and condition of the plane, about who was responsible for maintenance. He wonders about terrorism. But the coordinator offers a mundane reason for the accident.
CO-ORDINATOR: (Gentle) My opinion is, and I know how stupid this must sound, but it could well have been a … a simple mistake.
KOSLOV: A mistake? But who made the mistake?
Koslov interrogates the perpetrator of the mistake. With no answer, he turns to the mistake itself.
KOSLOV: But what mistake? What sort of mistake?
CO-ORDINATOR: I don’t know, really.
KOSLOV: Then why do you say that?
CO-ORDINATOR: Because – isn’t that usually the reason?
Koslov is incredulous.
KOSLOV: … You cannot put people up there, in aeroplanes, high up there, and then make simple mistakes… it’s completely unheard of.
Koslov’s late wife’s sister comes to a granite memorial to find him. He’s been there for days. While Koslov is full of anger for Olsen, Lizka has compassion.
LIZKA: I heard him interviewed. He was crying. He said it was his duty and responsibility to prevent such accidents happening. I remember that clearly. He sounded at a total loss. He sounded terrible.
Koslov is angry and yet numb to the world, turning to ultra-dark chocolate to get a sense of something external.
While Koslov cannot understand how a ‘simple mistake’ could happen, Lizka cannot understand how the context for it could exist. Koslov focuses on the actions of the controller. Lizka focuses on the context of work. She starts to recount the ‘second story’.
LIZKA: He said he was left all alone on duty that night. I just can’t understand that. He was all by himself, flitting between two screens. … Why would they allow that? He said he wasn’t even aware that the Russian plane’s warning system had told it to go up. When clearly it should have gone up. Just kept on going. If it had kept on going everything would have been OK. The other plane would have missed it completely.
LIZKA: But they’re saying all his phone lines were down. So no one could call anyone. Then, then maintenance men came in as well…
KOSLOV: I know, I heard his describing it.
LIZKA: It sounds horrific … like some crazy soap opera … like they were there to fix the telly!
LIZKA: I mean he couldn’t know what was going on! And he had another plane to land in Germany at the same time! Five minutes before. It was complete confusion! My God, his colleague was outside in the hall fast asleep!
KOSLOV: Lizka –
LIZKA: He was all by himself…
KOSLOV: Lizka –
LIZKA: No. No. I don’t understand.
KOSLOV: Lizka –
LIZKA: You don’t let people fall asleep in halls when there are planes flying around do you? Do you? What for? It doesn’t make sense…
KOSLOV: It was common policy.
LIZKA: To sleep in halls?
KOSLOV: To take it in turns. When traffic was slow.
LIZKA: Really? Was it? Really? But traffic wasn’t slow!
From her outside perspective, the conditions of work don’t seem reasonable.
But Koslov cannot escape the feeling that Olsen is culpable. In a phone call he talks about the statements given to the German and Swiss accident investigation authorities.
KOSLOV: It’s an inescapable fact he did do it. Im not saying he wasn’t put in a dreadful position. I’m saying he did it. … He commanded those pilots to dive. To ignore their screens and fly into each other. Yes? OK? Whatever the reasons. …
Koslov believes that someone must be held accountable but Thomas Olsen is acquitted by the courts. A representative of Skyways is in court:
WEITNER: In hindsight, you always ask yourself, could I have done more> More to anticipate, more to prepare, more to … mitigate. More.
Two officials received suspended sentences, and a fine of twelve thousand Euros. Koslov is offered compensation for his wife and children ($60,000, and $50,000, respectively). For Koslov, this defiles the name of his family. For him, justice has not been done. What justice can there be?
WEITNER: From the trial, did you really think someone was going to be prosecuted? Sent to prison? For an accident? Nobody was going to prison. It’s not how it works. Can you imagine? Private employees, in public service, sent to prison – for making mistakes? Who would be willing to take their place?
WEITNER: I know how difficult this must be for you.
KOSLOV: You can’t even say sorry.
Koslov tracks Olsen down in his family home, and murders him. He is sent to prison.
In his region of Russia, blood feuds were traditionally an accepted means of justice . His counsellor proposes that this might explain his actions.
GEISINGER: We know it wasn’t so long ago, perhaps only fifty years or so, that feuds in your country were decided in this way
… You belong to a history, a cultural history, of resolving trauma this way.
Koslov he denies this, and denies planning to kill Olsen, even remembering what happened.
Koslov is released part way through his sentence. On return to Russia, he receives a hero’s welcome. He is given an official post for architecture and construction and designs an Olympic-standard ski resort in Ossetia.
The play ends with Olsen’s daughter, Helena, arriving unexpectedly at a party for Koslov, seeking answers on why he did what he did, and restorative justice for her mother, who has made multiple requests to speak with Koslov. He has never responded.
HELENA: Speak to her. Please. It must mean something to you. It must do. You were a father. You had children.
KOSLOV: And your father murdered them.
HELENA: No! No! My father was a man, a good man! Who made a mistake!
KOSLOV: He is a murderer.
HELENA: (Screams) You are a murderer!!
My Eyes Went Dark raises questions about causation, culpability, justice, revenge and forgiveness. The first story of ‘human error’ and individual responsibility are set out alongside the second story of system conditions and collective and corporate responsibility. Human error, “a simple mistake” (famously cited as being the ’cause’ of 70% or so of accidents) is the first assumption of the co-ordinator. But a mistake is not innocent in the eyes of Koslov (nor in the eyes of many judicial systems around the world). The system as a whole is the focus for Lizka. She describes how degraded modes of operation stack on top of one another and become accepted as normal as an organisation drifts into failure. She feels compassion for the controller who was put in this position, and who ultimately lost his own life.
A mistake and an individual perpetrator gives Koslov a clear reason for the event and an identifiable target for his anger. As recalled by Lizka, the controller said it was his “duty and responsibility to prevent such accidents happening”. An organisation does not provide a clear reason for the event, nor a clearly identifiable target for Koslov’s anger
How would we react to such an event? Would a progressive understanding of human factors and system safety help or hinder forgiveness? Would an understanding of complexity actually make it easier or harder for us to channel our grief, and to get restorative justice? Would our understanding of ‘just culture’ save us from our darkest urges? We hope we’ll never know.
Script: Wilkinson, M. (2015). My eyes went dark. Oberon Books. https://www.oberonbooks.com/eyes-went-dark.html