A rather unusual thing happened to David Greig whilst he was researching material for The Events (winner of a Fringe First, subject to rave reviews and currently playing at the Young Vic until November), following a feature interview in The Observer he was forced into the position of an issuing a statement via his blog to clarify that his latest work was both not a musical and not about Anders Breivik.
It is a telling moment in the creation of this subtle and quietly devastating work that one of our leading contemporary playwrights felt the need to publically justify his work; it was another reminder of the undercurrent of sensationalism that surrounds mass public tragedies and which makes it so difficult to discuss them in anything other than the most binary of terms.
There is nothing in The Events that is suggestive of the Breivik shootings, however the themes are as much about that tragedy as it is about Dunblane, Columbine or Sandy Hook. As a play it is at once singular and all-encompassing; Greig allows the audience to only see glimpses of the tragedy as the play instead looks at the deeper, more powerful questions that arise in the response to a tragic event.
The play is neither cast nor structured in a traditional way; perhaps rightly assuming that to tell the story through a linear narrative would lead to difficulties in ensuring each viewpoint was treated with equal weight, Greig has chosen to refract a number of positions through his cast of two, and the community choir.
The result is an audience that remains distanced from the emotional impact of the action; an alienating technique that enables the play to take the form of a Socratic dialogue between the two actors. This is developed further in brief, direct interventions with the community choir, who often resemble a Greek chorus providing commentary on the action.
Claire (Neve McIntosh) is the community’s priest who set up the choir that was the focal point of the events, and who acts as a mirror to the audience in looking for answers and explanations for the Boy’s actions. Rudi Dharmalingham plays the Boy – always nameless – and all the other characters in the play.
Claire is on a redemptive quest to find understanding in the Boy’s actions in the belief that doing so will liberate her from a perceived survivor’s guilt. The audience follows her through brief, fragmentary scenes, as Claire tries to gain answers that will provide some form of justification for the events rather than them appearing a senseless act of brutality from which survival was little more than pure luck.
However Claire’s crisis of faith (in both the secular and religious world) helps to shape the deeper narrative, which is a dialogue that sets out the precariousness of modern liberalism when it comes under an extreme and sustained attack. As a lesbian priest with partner and penchant for homemade bread, Claire may be something of a liberal caricature but in her belief and values Claire is reflective of the country that many of the university-educated, metropolitan middle-class assumes Britain to be.
The subtlety of Greig’s writing is in how he picks apart our assumptions about the validity of this position. This is not just a play about understanding and forgiveness – a validation of the belief that shared dialogue and respect is what is needed for society to function– but one that examines whether there are limits to this approach.
Central is the exploration of what constitutes a community. We are drawn into tales of Nordic berserkers and Aboriginal tribes, and are given the sense that this modern idea of community has no real place in human history. The idea of a community is intricately linked to a more primeval tribal culture; a community’s strength was built around its shared history and beliefs and to the exclusion of all others.
The point is made that no community has ever welcomed the introduction of outsiders, and so the importance that liberals place on inclusion and open-dialogue with the other is set against the weight of human history pulling in the opposite direction. There is a disturbing logic to this position, and made more so by Greig’s refusal to demonise his characters and turn them into mere ciphers.
The Boy at the centre of events is not the devil incarnate; the truth, as it so often is, is far more disturbing. He is troublingly everyday; a person for whom life has floated past, existing in the real world but never feeling they have been part of it.
He is a character for whom ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’. In response The Boy eventually chooses to become the master of his own destiny and shapes a world that has no choice but to remember him.
Equally disturbing is Greig’s portrayal of the extremist leader. Calm, rational and human this is not the pantomime figure so beloved of the broadsheet press. There are not the easy shorthand signifiers; no painted St George flags, no cans of Carling, no bullet heads in bomber jackets. Again Grieg carefully details what is absent from that cartoonish picture; the existence of a human with their own value system.
Rather than a totemic hate figure, he is made human by the concern that he shows for his daughter and everyday concerns, like the niggling worry he has about being late for the bus. He is firmly rooted in the everyday and the audience are challenged to sympathise with the position he has found himself in, where his family are receiving death threats even though the Boy was only tangentially involved with the group.
Through the figure of the extremist, Greig channels one of his most perceptive and uncomfortable themes. The leader accuses the priest – and by extension, liberals – of engaging in exoticism rather than true multiculturalism. The basic claim is that people enjoy the sensation of interacting with other cultures so long as they remain in a position of dominance to them. A shared space of values is allowed to exist so long as the mechanisms for controlling the shape of the space remain within safely within existing power structures.
In ‘The Post-Colonial Exotic’ Graham Huggan describes how ideas can be freely shared within the cultural space because they, in themselves, do not engender actual political and social change. Greig’s challenge in The Events is that both the nationalistic tendencies of the extremist leader and the liberal values of the priest are ultimately directed towards the same end point; to protect the strength of their own community by protecting the mechanisms for power. The extremists may hark back to a more old-fashioned, pre-democratic understanding of what it means to defend the tribe but modern liberals control the institutions of power and, consciously or not, wield them to much the same effect.
Greig lays these out in carefully precise scenes that hint at devastating tragedy but rarely make it explicit. The emotion that courses through the play comes mainly through the choir. This use of community choirs – a different one each night – is a brilliant conceit and lifts the play from the good to something that nears the sublime.
It roots the play in the real and helps to avoid it becoming overly didactic. The amateur singers reinforce that what is being discussed is something that would happen to people entirely like them. The play is not trite enough to have these people suffer the tragedy but the background reminder is enough to give proceedings a genuine emotional charge.
The use of music – from the Messiah to choral versions of modern pop – is the most effective challenge to the discomforting assault on liberal values. Singing is one of the few cultural pursuits that brings people together communally in creating a shared experience, and one that can transcend traditional boundaries.
To understand music’s power and reach, one need only look to the fact that no less a figure than Carl Sagan, when heading the NASA Committee that chose the information to be stored on the Voyager satellite chose to dedicate space to, among others, extracts from Mozart, Stravinsky and Blind Willie Johnson.
The Events is a play that lingers long after the end of the performance. It is a quiet work that carries substantial weight. Eschewing the desire to preach from the pulpit, Greig instead invites us to a moment of reflection. Rather than setting up a series of straw men to be demolished, he sets out scenes calmly and carefully in order to force consideration of deeply held values.
Greig has been one of Britain’s most important and innovative playwrights for over two decades, consistently producing a type of theatre that seems resolutely unfashionable in the world of companies like Punchdrunk and Complicite. He creates innovative pieces that seeks to bring theatre to the people by tackling real and difficult issue; in The Events he may just have produced his finest work to date.