Saturday, August 10, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: The Events

Are there limits to human compassion? Are some acts so awful that they can never be fully understood, never mind, forgiven? These questions sit at the heart of David Greig’s new play for ATC and the Traverse.

The piece, which grew out of conversations which took place after Anders Breivik’s island massacre in Norway in 2011, was created in close collaboration with director Ramin Gray.

Claire – the only named character – is a vicar who has survived a mass shooting incident which has left many people in her community choir dead, only narrowly escaping being shot herself.  Claire is consumed by the need to know how such a thing could happen; she’s desperate to figure out why someone would commit such an act, why someone would take up a gun and kill and kill and kill again. This need to find an answer, to turn the events of that day into something she can process and rationalise, consumes her. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, she’s not sleeping, and she’s taken to imposing unwelcome spiritual healing rituals on the surviving choir members.

The perpetrator, she discovers, had a fairly troubled childhood, but it wasn’t any more troubled than many people’s – is there a line, a level of damage, which would make his violence more understandable? Would it have made a difference of he were insane? If his rampage was the result of aberrant brain chemistry? Or are there some things which are beyond comprehension, monstrous, evil? Rudi Dharmalingum plays the unnamed perpetrator – as well as several other characters, including Claire’s councillor and her girlfriend – as a flat voiced, detached figure, neither a rage machine nor a frothing monster, but a man who barely seems to understand his own motivations. He talks about tribalism, Vikings, the need to protect his kind, the failure of multiculturalism, but he’s no zealot. At one point he goes on a berserker vision quest and ends up retching like a cat with a hair ball – Grieg doesn’t shy away from humour, in blurring the line between the appalling and the absurd.

The most striking aspect of the production – which plays out on a stage near-naked except for a few benches at the back, a tea urn on a table, a piano and a pile of blue plastic stacking chairs – is the presence of a local choir. In every city to which the production will tour, a different choir will participate. Their voices join together with Claire’s, forming a chorus, but their non-actor status – they read their lines from folders – means that they are somehow both physically present and absent at the same time. It’s an effective device, a potent reminder of those that have been silenced – who are no longer there with Claire – and of those that continue to sing, to live.

What’s most interesting about the production is the way that, with its fragmentary structure and slightly detached quality enhanced by the presence of the choir, it manages to explore a situation which is incredibly horrific and upsetting without being overtly horrific and upsetting itself, maintaining a sense of space around the subject which allows its audience to think, to breathe, without putting them through an emotional wringer. Greig and Gray could rip you apart if they chose to, of that I’m fairly sure, but they pull back, build in barriers, and it’s a stronger piece for this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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