Evil is a problem that seems loth to go away. The word is derived from a religious notion of an overwhelmingly malign spiritual force. But in an age that doesn’t recognise itself as religious the word still retains a special status as a means of repudiating something terrible - something beyond our normal frame of moral reference. Nevertheless it remains difficult to nail down. This is the basis of David Greig’s touring play, The Events, first performed at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.
The action takes place in the aftermath of a ‘mass shooting’ targeting a multi-ethnic church choir in a small Scottish town. One of the few survivors is Claire - the church’s woman vicar who chides herself with her impotence in the face of the young man who launched the rampage. The trauma of the event has unsurprisingly forced her to doubt her faith in God and the existence of her own soul. Her need for answers, resolution or ‘closure’ however remains undimmed. Such as it is, the story is played out between her, an actual choir and a young man who strays into her church hall. He plays the various characters associated with ‘the events’ of the shooting – including the young man himself now held in prison.
One of the things that Greig seems to be trying to do is to explore the human need for myth. This includes the human appetite for mythic violence embodied in Norse legend and the practice of ancient warriors going ‘berserk’ after drinking a herbal infusion of reindeer pee. He also relates his play to a primal need for self-preservation in the story of an aboriginal boy who might reasonably have sought to slaughter the first European settlers before they could poison and crush his culture. Greig even contemplates the territorial violence of male-lead chimpanzees, versus the female-lead bonobo monkey’s impulse to copulate with enemies and intruders. And then, of course, there is the now standard excursion into Islamic jihadism.
How all this relates to the euphemistic ‘events’ of the story is often tenuous, and as an expression of confusion the play itself is very confusing. Its corner stone is Claire’s need for answers. The young man, mutating between parts, becomes in this sense a kind of witches’ ‘familiar’, giving body to all her conflicting thoughts and drives and allowing her to unpack herself emotionally and psychologically. The problem, though, is that horror is not easily fictionalised, and a made-up story also seems flimsy in relation to the real horror of the actual events to which it relates – Dunblane, Boston, Nairobi, Hungerford etc. The most successful show of this kind recently was London Road at the National Theatre. This was based on the testimonies of local people affected by Steve Wright’s serial killing of six women in Ipswich in 2006. In that play, music and the theme of community was used to engage and slough off the anger, guilt and shame.
The strategy of Ramin Gray’s production is to mobilise the modern-day shamanism of liberal humanism in the form of confrontation, therapy and encounter groups. Intriguingly, Chloe Lamford’s devoutly protestant design of a church hall comes complete with an orange backdrop, stacking chairs, dented teapot, chipped mugs, upright piano and a raised dais for the choir. This choir is, moreover, a different set of amateur singers every night, allowing them to act as a stand-in for the audience and a modern Greek chorus - witnessing, pushing and lamenting the action. It is as though some kind of religious practice is struggling to be born. Neve McIntosh’s Claire is the perfect proxy for the modern sceptic as a bony lesbian vicar in the grip of atheism. Rudi Dharmalingham as the young man playing sundry roles is also a nicely mercurial enigma.