The Events | Malthouse TheatreLeft – Johnny Carr and Catherine McClements. Cover – Catherine McClements. Photos – Pia Johnson

Given the frequency over recent years of mass public killings, any staging of Scottish playwright David Greig’s The Events was going to resonate. This production, coming so soon after the Orlando shootings, touches on wounds that are particularly raw. 

Written as a response to Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks in Norway, The Events centres on a mass killing at a local church. A young man wanders into choir practice one day and begins shooting. Many of the choristers lose their lives, and Claire – the local vicar who managed to survive the assault – struggles to come to terms with the young man’s actions.

It’s Claire’s search for answers that drives this play, and it’s a search with which it’s easy to identify. Claire’s willing to try anything, from shamanistic rituals that might get her back in touch with her soul, to meeting with the killer himself. Politicians, psychiatrists, right-wing ideologues: none of them can satisfactorily explain to her why the young man acted as he did. (Though, given the context of the play, it seems odd that she’d spend all her time wrestling with the mind of the killer and none of it wrestling with the mind of God.)

Even the killer’s own words make it difficult to pin down a definitive reason: a grudge against the multiculturalism the choir represents; a desire to make a mark on the world; a fragile identity, easy prey to hard-edged rhetoric; a deprived childhood; a nihilist urge to regenerate society; boredom.

At a brisk seventy-five minutes, The Events barely has time to scratch the surface of these grim episodes and our reactions to them. Greig’s analysis rarely goes beyond the headlines and OpEd pieces that inevitably follow each new shooting. Yet, while there are few fresh insights, the play does suggest something of the tangled accumulation of provocations and excuses that end in one man picking up a gun and killing a roomful of strangers.

The strength of this play is its characterisation of Claire (even if, on occasion, she seems little more than a mouthpiece for Greig). Here is a woman awash with conflicting emotions, and Catherine McClements skilfully traverses Claire’s bewilderment – from the awkward vicar greeting new members of the choir, to the angry partner who no longer knows how to express love, to the dreamer who imagines the moments when she might have shepherded the killer towards a different future – bringing dignity and authenticity to the role.

There is subtlety in Johnny Carr’s young killer, even if the role itself is a little nebulous. His vapid responses when he meets Claire – relating how he just wanted to fire his final bullet and get the assault over with because the whole thing was starting to feel silly – add an especially unsettling note.

Carr also plays all the other roles in The Events, from Claire’s lover to the killer’s father. Not a lot is done to differentiate these characters, and that may be a deliberate choice on the part of director Clare Watson (after all, they have little other function than to act as sounding-boards for Claire’s confusion), though I’m not convinced it’s the right choice. That said, Watson’s direction of the rapid-fire scene changes – particularly the sudden shifts in mood – is sharp and effective.

Community choirs are used in each performance to embody Claire’s choir (on opening night, THECHO!R, directed by Jonathon Welch, performed), and it’s a lovely addition, the choral music giving the play another layer of emotion. There are problems when choir members take on speaking roles – it jolts us out of the world of the play – and, for me, their physical presence on the stage undermined the sense of loss and absence with which Claire was dealing.

Still, the choir seems to be central to what Greig is trying to achieve here. Not only does the singing manage to temper the horror of the play’s subject matter, the lingering notes of the final song imbues The Events with an overwhelming sense of hope.

Malthouse Theatre presents
by David Greig

Directed by Clare Watson

Venue: The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank
Dates: 21 June – 10 July 2016
Tickets: $35 – $65

A co-production with Belvoir and State Theatre Company of South Australia

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