I suspect that, on some level, many liberal Westerners are experiencing a more or less perpetual state of grief and dread. Donald Trump is in the White House. Institutions including the press and democracy itself are being eroded. On the political right wing and on the left—where we once looked for allies—tribalism is in vogue.
What’s a liberal to do? In a way, that’s the central question in playwright David Greig’s The Events.
Greig drew much of his inspiration for The Events from a mass shooting in Norway. On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb outside government buildings in Oslo then went on a rampage at a summer camp for the youth wing of the ruling Labour government. He murdered 77 people—hunting teenagers down on the island of Utøya, where the camp was taking place—and injured 319 others, many seriously.
Greig sets his play in Scotland, although the story is so broadly applicable in the West that the location barely matters. Claire is a local priest who also leads a community choir that’s made up largely of marginalized folks including immigrants. Claire is one of the few survivors of an attack in which a character identified only as The Boy opened fire on the group. In the aftermath, Claire feels that she has lost her soul: nothing makes sense anymore.
She becomes obsessed with understanding The Boy. Why did he do it?
The structure of the play is compelling. There are only two actors: a woman (Luisa Jojic in this production) plays Claire and a man (Douglas Ennenberg) embodies all of the other characters, including The Boy. This device speaks to Claire’s monomania: she sees the attacker everywhere, including in her partner Catriona. It also sets the stage for a bravura performance from the male actor.
In a stroke of brilliance, Greig has also written a community choir into the play. In every performance, a different local group joins the players on-stage. Theatrically, these singers become the ghosts of the murdered choir members. They also form a kind of Greek chorus. Having been instructed not to read the play beforehand, they are both participants and witnesses. They speak for us and to us as the script deliberately—and, in a manner that’s also very Greek—struggles with issues of public concern.
Claire sees a therapist. She interviews The Boy’s father. Is The Boy a sociopath? Did he feel that his masculinity was under threat? What was his childhood like? What, exactly, was his relationship to the racist, right-wing political group he joined?
And here’s where the liberalism comes in. Determined to make sense of the world through her compassion and empathy, Claire stays locked in a state of unacknowledged rage. “I’m not angry,” she tells her therapist. “I’m not angry!” she yells at Catriona.
In some ways, the script feels overly analytical. We hear some text about how chimps resolve conflict through violence for instance, while bonobos resolve conflict through sex, and then Claire imagines a sexual encounter with The Boy.
Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off The Events. The story is high-stakes. The mode of inquiry is intriguing. And I was aware that I came into the evening with such a load of sorrow that I was on the verge of tears almost as soon as the play started.
The performances in this production are also strong. Physically, Ennenberg is impressively responsive. As The Boy imagines being a Viking high on hallucinogens going berserk or transforming into a fox, his animal familiar, it feels like the actor is inhabiting those experiences on a cellular level. Ennenberg inhabits more quotidian subtleties, too—when a schoolmate of The Boy’s laughs at Claire’s lack of understanding of what it means to be unpopular, for instance.
Luisa Jojic also commits fully to Claire.
That said, I wish that director Richard Wolfe had encouraged a more colloquial approach from both players. With a script that’s this intellectually self-conscious, it’s up to the performers to bring it home, to give us a sense of the impact of the events on a human scale. Under Wolfe’s direction, both Jojic and Ennenberg lean into intensity. There are downsides to that: it doesn’t leave Jojic enough room to build Claire’s mania, for instance.
I don’t want to overstate my case; I admire both performances. And the choir does an excellent job of grounding the event in everyday humanity. On opening night, a group called Lynn Valley Voices performed. They sang well. And they were simply themselves: ordinary, ragtag humans like the rest of us. There was something very moving about that. “This is us,” I thought as I looked at them. “This is us. And we can still sing together.”
THE EVENTS By David Greig. Compositions by John Browne. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Pi production at the Russian Hall on Thursday, January 18. Continues until January 28 as part of the PuSh Festival.
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