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A tricky path to compassion

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, The Events ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 22 June ·
Reviewed by Tiffany Ha ·

Claire is not your stereotypical church pastor. She’s an attractive, youthful, left-leaning woman who runs a community choir and lives with her same-sex partner. We meet her some months after she’s experienced a major psychological trauma, referred to ominously as “The Events”. As the play progresses we learn the details of what happened: during a regular rehearsal night, a young, enraged man stormed into the church, gun-in-hand, and open-fired on the choir. Many of the victims were immigrants.

David Greig’s The Events premiered in Edinburgh in 2013. Directed here by BSSTC’s artistic director Clare Watson, it’s an ambitious play that explores the aftermath of mass shooting events through a number of different lenses. The two main perspectives are those of the survivor (pastor Claire, played by Catherine McClements) and the perpetrator (referred to as “The Boy”, played by Johnny Carr). At the beginning of the play, the two characters are so opposed, so disconnected from one another, that it seems as if they exist in separate dimensions, despite sharing the same locale. When we first meet The Boy, it’s as if we’re meeting a villain in a David Lynch film: the lights change to a murky blue; there’s a spotlight on him as he paces aggressively around the stage, chest puffed and arms tensed; we hear a sinister, thumping techno track that my friend informs me is from the soundtrack of Hotline Miami – one of the most flippantly violent video games of all time.

Claire’s approach to dealing with her trauma is to find answers, to soothe herself through understanding. Carr takes on multiple roles as The Psychologist, The Journalist, The Politician, The Spiritual Guru, The Father (of The Boy) and Katrina (Claire’s supportive but fed-up partner), and Claire engages with each of these characters in a dialectical discussion. We see her valiant efforts to hold back her anger when faced with somebody who may have, directly or indirectly, caused great suffering to her and her community. We see her struggle to overcome the confusion, anxiety and scatteredness that comes with trauma. Her willingness to show compassion and, ultimately, forgiveness serves as a lesson to us all. Both leads gave energetic, committed performances, handling the different facets of the complex subject matter with aplomb.

But, despite tackling such a raw and relevant topic, The Events didn’t deliver the kind of gut-wrenching impact for which I was bracing myself. Overall, the emotional range of the play is surprisingly limited – our heroine operates at an almost manic intensity for the entire 75 minute production (no interval). There is no sense of catharsis because there’s no space created for sadness or despair.

Johnny Carr and Catherine McClements gave energetic, committed performances, handling the different facets of the complex subject matter with aplomb. Photo: Daniel J. Grant.

What makes The Events memorable and enjoyable is its music. Each night, the actors are joined on staged by a different community choir; on opening night I felt fortunate to catch Rhythmos, one of Perth’s premier a cappella choruses. Their musical interludes, accompanied by pianist and musical director Ben Hogan, provide respite from the main characters’ wordy, cerebral chunks of dialogue. But having them on stage for the entire performance is, at times, jarring. Why is this 30-strong choir relegated to the role of Greek chorus – merely observing the action, occasionally offering commentary or comic relief – when, surely, they are also survivors dealing with loss and trauma? And the brief inclusion of some of the choir members as minor characters in the narrative comes across as tokenistic. Having characters reading from scripts, and passing around microphones to be heard, breaks the fourth wall and interrupts the flow of the performance.

Ultimately, The Events left me feeling unsatisfied. The playwright, Greig, presents many different sociological threads that are left hanging at the play’s conclusion, begging to be woven together, or, at least, explored further. Perhaps the importance of this play – revealed to me in the beautiful closing number, “We’re All Here”, by composer John Browne – is that it offers hope through compassion, understanding, and togetherness. But how we get to that point remains unclear.

The Events plays the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 8.

Pictured top: Catherine McClements as Claire and Johnny Carr as The Boy, with Rhythms.  Photo: Daniel J. Grant.

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