Sunday, 28 February 2016

Review: 'The Events'

State Theatre Company of SA, Belvoir, Malthouse Theatre and Adelaide Festival, Her Majesty's Theatre, 25 February-5 March 2016. Written by David Grieg. Directed by Clare Watson.  

Photo: Shane Reid

All art, the old truism goes, should ask questions rather than answer them. Scottish playwright David Grieg’s play The Events, loosely based on the 2011 Norway attacks, is abundantly enquiring. However, the interest generated by its moral and political conundrums is ultimately outstripped by a frustrating lack of either development or resolution.

Claire (Catherine McClements) is an Anglican minister in a small town. The multicultural community choir she leads becomes the target of The Boy (Johnny Carr), a disaffected right-wing extremist who guns down a number of the choir’s members in a vicious, unsparing attack. Claire, lucky to survive when The Boy found himself with only a single bullet and two potential victims holed up in the church music room, struggles to make sense of the events in their aftermath, spiraling into a destructive cycle of grief, psychological instability, and existential doubt.

Her quest for answers leads her to fraught encounters with psychologists, politicians, her partner, Katrina, The Boy’s friends and family, and, ultimately, The Boy himself (Carr embodies all of these characters with little physical or vocal differentiation, requiring some work on the part of the audience to ascertain who’s speaking in each scene, but it’s nevertheless a strong performance, grounded and attentive to detail, especially in Carr’s unsettlingly reasonable portrayal of the killer). Above all, Claire wants to know why.

‘I kill to protect my tribe from softness,’ The Boy intones chillingly, echoing history’s legion of masculinist butchers. For Claire, it’s not enough. Mad or evil, she insists on knowing. Is his father to blame, or the anti-immigration party of a Geert Wilders-style politico, or violent video games, or a crisis of masculinity? All familiar debating points that will resonate with different audiences for the same reason: the recurrence of the figure of the lone, white male killer, embittered and delusional, and, like Camus’ Meursault, estranged from mainstream society – Martin Bryant in Australia, Timothy McVeigh and countless others in the US. Grieg may have been thinking of the Norway attacks when he wrote The Events, but surely the Dunblane school massacre – perpetrated by another toxically aggrieved white man, Thomas Watt Hamilton – could not have been far from his mind either.

Perhaps overcompensating for The Boy’s conformity to this stereotype, Grieg throws the audience several curveballs. Both Claire and the killer are same sex-attracted, and their relationships to violence are startlingly reversed: we hear about The Boy’s defense of a young woman under assault by three men, and Claire’s infanticidal daydreams. On one occasion, she violently forces a kiss on Katrina then spits in her face. Is Grieg, in these moments, simply implying that everybody is capable of good and evil, that psychopathy is a spectrum and not a stable descriptor? If so, it seems trite in the face of the events. If not, these moments are difficult to read.           

Various contrivances and omissions prove similarly puzzling. It’s occasionally hard, for example, to swallow the choir’s endurance, and PTSD-affected Claire’s continued leadership of it. Claire’s unsegregated meeting with The Boy seems implausible (or is it another nightmare?). Given that she is an Anglican minister, we also learn surprisingly little of the nature of Claire’s faith. She is still a believer, apparently, although not in providence. ‘Do you pray?’ she is asked at one point. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Nothing.’ Claire’s flirtation with spiritualism, alienating to her choristers, reveals her dissatisfaction with mainstream faith, with its failure to provide her with either answers or solace after the massacre, but the audience is given scant sense of her religious journey. ‘Before I was good,’ is as much as she says. ‘Before I was happy’. Was she? There’s no way of telling.       

The play’s most striking conceit is the appearance, each night, of a different community choir on stage that functions, albeit in a limited way, in the manner of a Greek chorus (there’s also a Brechtian touch, with members roleplaying from time to time). It’s a device that neatly inverts the divisive tribalism evinced by The Boy, reminding us of the suturing power of community and of music (it’s telling, of course, that Claire instinctively fled to the music room to escape the shootings even if, in the end, it proved a sanctuary only for her). Sharply directed by Carol Young and performing traditional hymns as well as contemporary pop songs, in addition to original music by John Browne that lightly comments on the action of the play, the rough energy of the choir (the wonderfully named La La Land on the night I saw it) is a delight.

Catherine McClements is excellent, a finely measured account of Claire’s emotional and spiritual bewilderment happily banishing memories of a storied film and television CV. Geoff Cobham’s plain set – steel-frame chairs and battered upright piano evoking a dusty church hall – nicely complements Clare Watson’s unembellished direction, and is lit by his own design that makes effective use of both warm washes and chilly, driving followspots.       

Theodor Adorno wrote that ‘the finished work, in our times and climate of anguish, is a lie’. It may be that The Events says no more than this: that closure is an impossibility, because finally life – and death – resist reason, and can never be fully understood. However appealing this view is in the age of ISIS, Syria and the world-as-battlefield mentality of a US empire in its death throes, it’s an unsatisfying foundation for drama, and one that, perversely, risks aping the nihilism it identifies in its subjects.

‘Sometimes shit just happens,’ one of Grieg’s characters says. But there’s a difference from being usefully discomforted by this thought, and being convinced that it’s more profound than it sounds. A lot of shit just happens to Claire over the course of The Events, too much of it inscrutable, too little that adds up to a clear and compelling trajectory. No doubt the play is an assertion of the good of community, of the coming together of disparate people in the name of a shared sense of belonging (and, by extension, of the good of theatre itself). But the play also reminds us that none of these things – even if within them might reside the source of our recovery and our redemption – is of itself capable of stopping a hail of bullets.

Maybe The Boy needs a name. Maybe the play’s brevity (it runs for just over an hour) is constrictive. In any case, we are left with a jumble of questions – puzzle pieces set out in front of us as Watson puts it in her director's note, only there’s no picture on the box to guide us in their assembly. Why?

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