How it’s New York: The play was presented at New York Theatre Workshop, one of New York’s most innovative Off-Broadway resident theatres.
How it’s (Irish) Scottish: David Grieg is a Scottish playwright and the piece was first presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it won a Fringe First and the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award.
Some things are so unspeakable they can only be hinted at in art. Painting, perhaps, or dance, or music. Words don’t seem to convey real pain.
But there are exceptions, and David Grieg’s “The Events” is one of them. The play, from Actors Touring Company, dramatizes the aftermath of a boy’s shooting of a choir and its effect on the female vicar.
Grieg uses music, by a different community choir each night. The choir also serve as a Greek chorus. And though at times the play flags, at its end it provides true catharsis, pity and release of pain. In that final scene, the audience are invited to sing too; house lights were lit, and I was not the only one weeping openly. The play only continues through Sunday, March 22. If you can get in, don’t miss it.
Grieg’s approach is non-linear; we do begin at the beginning but then there are scenes which are fantasies, dreams, nightmares, flashbacks, between the vicar, Claire, played by a haunted, breaking Neve McIntosh and by Clifford Samuel, who plays both the boy and every other role: the boy’s father, Claire’s lover, Catriona, a politician.
The set, designed by John Browne, is sparse, like a community hall: folding chairs, risers, an upright piano, a table with coffee urns. In the first scene the chorus go through their warm-ups with the pianist, Magnus Gilljam, who is also the music director.
The play begins with an aboriginal boy seeing three ships arrive, vowing to kill everyone. This scene will repeat in a different way at the end. The way Grieg loops his scenes around is like music, and because it is,it gets under our skin and affects us the way music does. Breathing matches it. A motif has a different meaning the second time around.
When The Boy enters Claire’s choir room, she welcomes him and invites him to sing, though it’s all right if he doesn’t, because not everybody feels like singing.
It’s a fact: hope hurts more than pain.
In some scenes we’re inside The Boy’s head. He wants to make a mark on the world, he says. We hear how Claire and a choir member ran into a music room, where the boy asked them which one of them he should kill. We meet his loathsome father. We watch as Claire unravels. She begins having the choir do Shamanistic exercises (they don’t like this much).
She’s a nurse who smothers the boy at birth. She and her lover adopt the teenage boy.
We understand why Claire is so damaged, but it’s hard on her lover, who can only understand so far. And Claire’s rage is exhausting. One night a stranger talks to her as she walks along alone. It’s chilling when the stranger gently asks her to take a step back from the edge. Shortly after that she visits the boy in prison, intending to poison him.
There, for the first time, he exists outside of her imagination: and we realize that too, for the first time. Those earlier scenes of his anger and fury– they may not have been real. He keeps saying “truthfully” to all of her questions. He’s trying to tell the truth. He’s not a monster– we see in his past he’s done at least one good thing. Can we forgive him? no. But it’s impossible to hate him. Even he can’t understand himself.*
In every scene, the play is asking, screaming, WHY? Claire wants answers: from psychiatrists, from journalists. How do you make sense of events like this? the on-the-nose discussions are appropriate : the play is somewhere between drama and symposium. To enjoy it, you have to let go, let some of it wash over you. If one bit doesn’t work, wait a minute, there’s another. Ramin Gray’s direction is highly theatrical and vivid; helped by Charles Balfour’s evocative lights and Alex Caplen’s subtle sounds. Gray gets terrific performances from both McIntosh and the remarkable Samuel, who shifts characters so compellingly his face actually changes.
The chorus read some lines of dialogue, too, holding scripts. They are, as a Greek chorus should be, stand-ins for us. There are middle-aged people awkwardly trying to dance to Dizzie Rascal’s “Bonker’s.” (The boy’s favorite song). There are young women in smart boots. There are men with glasses and untucked shirts. They look impossibly real, because they are.
Trying to determine what drove the boy, Claire looks to anthropology. Human beings share 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, who are warlike, and make war on other chimpanzee tribes when they see them. This connects with The Boy’s ramblings about being a warrior.
But it turns out we also share 98 percent of our DNA with the bonobo, who are led by an elder female, and when they meet another group of bonobos, mate with them to make a new tribe.
The other two percent are just us.
The play recapitulates its opening scene at the end, and a powerful hymn by John Browne, whose complex chords and repetition of “We’re all here,” even as the names of some of the dead are listed in supertitles.
It’s a fact: hope hurts more than pain. But we cling to it.
Random shootings aren’t going anywhere. There’s ISIS. Sandy Hook. Tunisia.
But then there’s “The Events.” And there’s hope.
*Editor’s note: Breivik wants to found a fascist party, and doesn’t seem particularly repentant.