David Greig's ripped-from-the-headlines fusion of theatre, tragedy and uplifting live choirs makes the epic intimate
An angry young man with a racist manifesto enters a church hall during its choir practice and starts shooting. This is the catalysing act of The Events, a play with its heart lodged in its throat. Catherine McClements (Water Rats) is Claire, a pastor who is proud of her choir of new migrants, young mums, older people, and others who live on the fringes of society (she lovingly calls them “one crazy tribe”). Claire survives the shooting but many in her choir do not, and the guilt and trauma of the attack understandably begin to consume her thoughts and change the course of her life.
After the shooting, everything in Claire’s life is about the assailant, who she calls ‘The Boy’ (Johnny Carr, coiled and chameleon-like). She’s angry, grieving, lost: she steals a Twix and shoves a cashier; she walks alone at night, not quite dressed; she refuses to talk about her pain in therapy or with her partner Katrina. Carr plays the therapist and Katrina, too, in a thoughtful conceit: he really is the only thing Claire can see these days.
When this topic is so frequently sensationalised, it’s initially jarring to realise that this play is not at all sensational. Rather, Scottish playwright David Greig (whose work was last seen in Australia when Sydney Theatre Company staged his ‘play with songs’ Midsummer in 2012) keeps things small. There isn’t much smaller than Claire in her sensible shoes and cardigan and collar, a lone woman reeling from a shattered life and community. Claire’s work with the choir was about creating a sense of safety, unity and hope – notions The Boy actively despised. Through Claire, Greig cuts through the shocking presentation of mass murder and turns us instead towards a simpler question: how do we cope with so much pain?
Greig was inspired to write the play after Anders Brevik, a Norwegian far-right nationalist, carried out two attacks in Oslo on July 22, 2011, killing 77 people. But for the sake of this story, the antagonist might be any and every man who turns his rage outward in horrific mass shootings. Claire is an ‘anyone’, too – any survivor, any pastor unsure how to connect with her people to heal together.
The accents spoken onstage are local and familiar to the ear, the lights (by Geoff Cobham) in the theatre are brighter than usual – harsher, like a church hall. This could happen here. When Claire speaks to a politician who decried her choir and its mission statement of multicultural unity (an act that may have alerted The Boy to the choir’s quiet existence) it’s not so difficult to be reminded of our own political landscape and alienating terms like ‘asylum seekers’ (designed to dehumanise refugees and their plight).
Claire’s choir is played each night by a different Sydney community chorus (on opening night, it was Choir of Love and One World Choral). They interact with Claire and The Boy; they act as the production’s Greek chorus, singing outside the play’s sense of place and time; they are Claire’s choir.
Director Clare Watson, soon to join Black Swan State Theatre Company as artistic director, coaxes extraordinary gentleness out of a play full of violence, horror, and loss. McClements is eminently likable, though angry and vulnerable. She’s the play’s centre of gravity, but somehow there’s nothing more important than the way she holds a cup of tea in her hands – not even this old balm works reliably anymore. Claire’s quest for understanding and healing begins to isolate her and she draws away from the choir and her loved ones.
But it is the choir, ultimately, that will give Claire – and us – perhaps the only relief we can hope for. Filling Belvoir with ‘How Great Thou Art’ and a moving final hymn created for the play, they seem to offer up not hope, or any definitive explanation for these acts of violence. Instead they simply seem to suggest continuity. Maybe it is enough that those who survived are still singing. They are still a community – terrorised but alive.