The first thing you notice about Martín Zimmerman’s script is that he’s addressing it to you. Or rather, Polly Frame’s character is addressing you. Everything that happens is filtered through your experience, your perception of the situation. The audience are carried along in a kind of emotional row boat, not being able to change the direction but still rocked by the waves.
The second thing you notice about Chris Haydon’s production is the lights on the floor. Frankie Bradshaw’s design illuminates Frame’s figure in the middle of the space. It outlines new spaces and echoes her wracked breaths in moments of panic. The criss-crossing LEDs sit huge and distorted on the stage, marking their territory.
The last thing you notice about Haydon’s production is your own breath rattling around in your lungs – fragile and vital in equal measure. You release a huge breath as the lights go down, and realise you’ve been holding it in for the last hour.
On the Exhale knows who it is talking to. Zimmerman, Haydon, and Frame know that they are talking to a liberal, wealthy, Edinburgh Fringe audience. They use this to their advantage. Initially the show is about the paranoia of gun violence, and the idea that one day it might be you. Frame tells you that you are a liberal professor of women’s studies (and we believe her, of course), and you examine every young white male that enters your class (because it is always a young white male), and keep your office door locked. Then the play pulls the floor from underneath you and there’s an audible intake of breath in the surrounding seats. It is not your life which is in danger, but your son’s. Zimmerman packages a show about grief and trauma inside a show about gun violence in America. Slowly, the layers are peeled back on a life that has been permanently altered, and we see the way that trauma distorts reality in all its fuzzy difficulty.
The second half of Zimmerman’s play explores the necessity that grips some people to re-enact their trauma. In becoming the perpetrator of the crime, and reliving it as if it was her, our liberal professor comes to terms with her son’s death. She grips the same gun in her hands, and lifts it to her shoulder. Its weight and solidity is a comfort in her new hazy existence. When that weapon is lifted, she sees her son again. It acts like a drug. What was once the epicentre of paranoia and fear and hate is now her closest companion. She attempts to bury it in the garden, only to dig it up again. This is where the production knows its audience, and uses it. What we expect in her grief is a hate of the weapon that caused it, and a fight for the abolition of it altogether. What we get instead is a flawed retracing of steps, and an uncomfortable shift in how much we are willing to tolerate. This challenge only goes so far, though. I wonder how useful the narrative is in stretching the gun violence debate, and whether in fact it is just perpetuating a long-held idea that the most interesting arguments are the ones playing devil’s advocate.
On the Exhale is on at Traverse Theatre until 26th August. More info here.