“It’s important to turn dark things into light,” says Claire, the anguished figure at the heart of David Greig’s new play, not quite convincing herself. The Events, Greig’s response to his conflicted feelings about the Norwegian massacre committed by Anders Breivik, is driven by a similar desire and tempered by similar doubt. As much as its protagonist, The Events searches for understanding, redemption, hope. What it finds is nothing so straightforward, but it is all the more compelling for the complexity it excavates on stage.
While sparked by a discussion between Greig and director Ramin Gray following the Breivik atrocity, this is not about what happened in Norway in July 2011. Instead, the events of the show have ripped apart a small, unspecified seaside community, where a boy has shot and killed several members of a local multicultural choir. Claire, the leader of the choir and a survivor of the massacre, is searching for answers. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Did the perpetrator have a reason, or must his actions be put down to “evil”?
Through the character of Claire, played with compassion and complexity by Neve McIntosh, the play prods at the insistent human desire to understand. Without understanding, Claire’s rage is impotent, directionless. In search of either an object for her hatred or an explanation that might pave the way to forgiveness, Claire hunts everywhere for answers, interrogating in turn the murderer’s father, his schoolmate, the leader of the right-wing political party whose ideology he laid claim to. But the more details are added to the sketch, the more the picture is obscured.
The succession of individuals questioned by Claire in her search for the truth are all played by Rudi Dharmalingam, who also represents the perpetrator of the central atrocity. This canny choice by Greig and Gray can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand, Claire seems to be seeing the face of the murderer in every place she looks, unable to escape him even in the embrace of her lover. The playing of all other roles by one actor also creates an intriguing quality of slipperiness; the killer is both everywhere and nowhere, inhabiting each last crevice of her consciousness while at the same time taunting her with his elusiveness. The ambiguity is enhanced by Dharmalingam’s performance, which meets Claire’s desperation with a refusal to emotionally engage, delivering each line with the same blank, lightly mocking intonation.
The impression we receive is that of a woman caught in a self-constructed labyrinth of questions, finding herself more and more lost with each new turn. There’s a certain disjointedness to the scenes, an apt sense of confusion and dislocation that hints at the incomprehensibility of what Claire is trying to piece together. Claire is a woman unmoored; unmoored from her faith, from those around her, from a previously solid sense of reason and logic. Buffeted by the currents of grief, rage and an utter failure to understand, she is alone in a sea of uncertainty.
Claire’s struggle is reminiscent of certain strands in Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident, both in the subject matter – Thorpe’s play also features a massacre with hints of Breivik – and in its staging. In There Has Possibly Been an Incident, individuals are isolated down to the level of voice, which speaks against the blank, bland backdrop of Signe Beckmann’s minimal design. Here, Chloe Lamford’s set is similarly, masterfully simple. The stage is relatively bare, furnished only with a few rows of benches, a garish orange curtain, a piano, stacks of plastic chairs and tables loaded with teacups. The visual cues that this design offers are all painful reminders of the choir rehearsal room, but more important is the yawning empty space in its middle. In this space, McIntosh’s tormented Claire searches for ways to fill the gap, not just investigating but also acting, playing out different outcomes and solutions.
Sharing the sparsely furnished stage with McIntosh and Dharmalingam throughout the show is a local choir, different every night. This touch, which on paper has the sound of a gimmick, is in fact the production’s masterstroke. On the level of the play’s narrative, their role is one of haunting, suggestive of how something – the soul, God, the accusatory whispers of the dead – can remain present even in its absence. The choir’s presence and the songs they add to the piece also nod towards the potentially redemptive and community building power of music, which at first has a flavour of bitter irony, but eventually sweetens into something like hope.
On the level of the production, meanwhile, the choir does something even more interesting. Arranged on a bank of seating directly opposite that in which the audience is arrayed, the singers act as witnesses; mirroring the audience, they struggle alongside us to grapple with the questions the play poses. Their lack of slickness or preparation also adds a vital roughness, a slightly messy and unpredictable edge that makes the piece all the more truthful and affecting. At one moment during the performance, I notice one of the choir members raise a hand to her mouth, an involuntary but striking movement that focuses my attention on the theatrical dimensions of the event – the fact that we are sharing a public space and collectively processing this effort to understand.
In his introduction to the playtext, Gray writes that “Every act of theatre revolves around a transaction between two communities: the performers onstage and the improvised community that constitute what we call an audience”. His choice of the word community is no accident. The Events is all about communities – or “tribes” – with no small amount of tension contained in that notion. Community in the sense encapsulated by Claire’s choir is overwhelmingly positive, yet it is also in the name of community, or of protecting a certain community, that atrocities like this are committed. Greig’s intricate, finely tuned arguments have a habit of sharply pivoting, challenging our assumptions and once again subjecting everything to knotty ambivalence.
In the end, how these events and their wounding repercussions read is down to each of the individuals in our improvised community, the audience. It is easy to take despairing doubt from what we are presented with, but it’s equally possible to seize on hope. Near the end, a crucial moment in the narrative is suddenly ruptured by the intervention of a choir member, who reads from a script explaining the different between chimps and bonobos. While chimps solve conflict with violence, bonobos prefer sex to aggression, greeting their enemies with embraces. Humans, we are told, share exactly 98% of our DNA with each species. Which, therefore, do we most resemble? The implication, like that of the whole production, is that it for us to decide.