Surprisingly Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC) and Shakespeare in Love (West End)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. But I’ve just seen two Shakespearean productions that surprised me, for different reasons: the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and a new West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

Two Gents is rarely staged so I jumped at the chance to see it in Stratford, having assumed that I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to do so again.

Its reputation is not good. It’s one of Shakespeare’s novice plays, perhaps his first, and certainly his earliest comedy. And it shows all the signs of being a play by an inexperienced writer. As the director Simon Godwin mentions in his very informative programme note, the dialogue in the play is usually shared out between two or at most three characters – a sign that Shakespeare had yet to develop the confidence to sustain conversation across larger groups. He goes on as follows:

There’s directness in the plotting. As playwrights get more experienced, they become oblique in their exposition. Here, characters come on and say “the following things have happened so we must do this immediately”… This play is joyfully clear but sometimes you notice the joins.

With its cross-dressing heroine, and its themes of betrayal and over-hasty reconciliation, it is seen generally as a prototype for later, better plays, especially As You Like It. So in some of the press previews for the production, it’s been presented as an opportunity to see a curiosity: bad Shakespeare done well. That’s been a minor trend lately: we’ve seen strong productions of Timon of Athens by Nick Hytner and Troilus and Cressida by Cheek By Jowl, for example. So I went along with a sense of curiosity but without high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the play is a neglected masterpiece, but the production was consistently engaging and entertaining. There’s a courage in giving this flawed play to a director who’s new to the RSC – and he in turn has been courageous in casting actors who seem in most cases to be just out of drama school. This is a young person’s play with a very young cast – and despite their lack of experience, the performances are very good, and in some cases excellent.

As the audience enters the auditorium, the action is already underway – we find onstage an Italian piazza with an outdoor café. The cast lounge about, sipping espressos, playing music, gossiping, perhaps flirting. Some members of the audience are led onstage and given ice-cream: a gimmick that reminded me of John Tiffany’s direction of Oncethe Musical, which opens with the cast already having a session in a bar, at which audiences can buy pints of stout during the interval.

As the action kicks off, there is again a pleasant surprise: the delivery of lines has a clarity that is unusual, even at the RSC. The actors fully understand what they are saying, and they make sure that we do too: there’s some simple and effective use of emphasis, gesture, and body language to make sure we know what’s going on, notably from Martin Bassindale, the actor playing Speed. Also impressive is the way in which the actors have been directed to respond to each other: they clearly understand each other’s lines too. I was also surprised by how literally the lines were delivered. A lot of Shakespearean performances nowadays try to get cheap laughs from playing against Shakespeare’s original meanings, but here the actors just tell Shakespeare’s jokes, even the slightly clunky ones. This might all seem like  very basic stuff (understanding your lines, responding to the other actors), but the quality of the work was strong enough to make many other recent productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen seem seriously under-rehearsed by comparison.

So by the time the two gents have arrived at Milan, the production has found an easygoing, confident rhythm. And yes, there is a live dog onstage, and yes she steals the show, repeatedly. There are also several musicians who play live throughout: I glumly noted that the RSC have more musicians in the wings than many theatres have actors on stage.

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Roger Morlidge and Mossip

And when the plot flags a bit, the direction finds a way to liven things up, adding in some extra business that enhances the action without changing the meaning of the play. A lively highlight occurs about half-way through the first part of the play, when we find ourselves in a Veronese nightclub, cast and musicians joining together to don sunglasses and dance to music that feels more Brazilian than Italian –  not because Shakespeare wrote this scene (he didn’t) but simply because the characters are young and they want to dance (you can hear the music and see parts of this scene in the trailer below). Here I found myself being reminded of Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction of the ball in his RSC Romeo and Juliet from 2010, in which we find Juliet losing herself in a heavily percussive beat that made it very difficult (for me, anyway) to stay sitting passively – and which established a tone and level of energy that persisted to the play’s conclusion.

In suggesting that Godwin’s work reminded me of Goold and John Tiffany I don’t want to imply that his direction is derivative. What impressed me about him was his willingness to both respect the text (by directing his actors so carefully) while also theatricalising it fully. He has a great scene, for example, when the foppish Turio tries to woo Sylvia by singing up to her as she stands on her balcony. Lest we be distracted by memories of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin has his actor (Nicholas Gerrard-Martin) perform his courtship in the form of a song – one so fabulously bad that we might half-wonder if Silvia might take pity on him after all.

Is it a good play? Well, not really – but we find here that Proteus is more than just an interesting prototype of Iago or Hamlet – and that Julia is more than just a prototype for Rosland and Viola. We also see how, from the beginning, Shakespeare was playing with form: here he gives  us a comedy that concludes with Valentine offering to give up Silvia to Proteus – the man who had just attempted to rape her. Valentine’s proposal that his wedding to Silvia be accompanied by a wedding between Proteus and Julia feels very uncomfortable, in a way that would be repeated (without being much improved upon) in Measure for Measure.

And there are some very good performances. The two female leads are very strong. Many of the female performers I’ve seen in recent RSC productions seemed miscast or out of their depth: they seemed too inclined to use an affected throaty style of line delivery instead of – well, instead of acting. As Julia and Silvia, Pearl Chanda and Sarah Macrae  bring their own individuality to their characters: there is a naturalness and a distinctiveness to the line delivery by both that impressed me very much, especially given that both parts are so horribly underwritten and repetitive (especially Silvia’s).  Chandra’s performance has an apparently effortless quality that makes her transformation from male to female at the end of the play seem both sexually charged and poignant. She’s very  impressive. I am sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years ahead.

Mark Arends (Proteus) and Pearl Chanda (Julia)

Mark Arends as Proteus and Pearl Chandra as Julia

This production is running on in Stratford for the rest of the summer, and they plan to broadcast it live around the world in early September. I’d recommend it.

Meanwhile, in the West End we have the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, a charming and very smart film that was scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. This West End adaptation comes under the Disney banner (co-produced with Sonia Friedman), but it’s also directed by Declan Donnellan, so any fears that it might be a blatantly commercialised production are balanced out by the credibility of the director.

This production has been getting great reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The stage features a large three-story structure that reproduces the architecture of a typical Elizabethan playhouse (as shown below). The design, of course, is by Nick Ormerod, whom Donnellan always works with in their Cheek By Jowl productions.

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Sometimes the action is literally set in a playhouse – for a rehearsal or for the performance of Romeo and Juliet that concluded the film so memorably. Yet even when the action happens in other places, we remain within a theatre, so that even intimate scenes (such as when Will finds his way into Viola’s bedroom) are observed by other members of the cast, who become a silent audience when they are not actively performing. Donnellan has  thoroughly theatricalised the entire performance, which becomes a series of plays within plays: like a dramatic version of a Russian matrushka doll.

And it’s been quite skilfully adapted too (by Lee Hall, who also gave us Billy Elliot). The role of Christopher Marlowe is expanded considerably, so that he now feeds lines to Will in a scene that fills in some of the missing links between  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Cyrano de Bergerac. These interchanges give Will someone to talk to, making his characterisation easier to understand – and they also intensify the audiene’s distress when Marlowe’s death is revealed (drawing gasps from some of the people watching the play, incidentally – does it require spoiler warnings?).

And as you’d expect, there is some lovely movement around the stage. Donnellan always creates wonderful stage pictures, and does so here too – the image below, for example, is one of the first we see:

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Or there’s this one:

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Such tableaux feel natural and unfussy, and they’re often very pleasing to look at.

Donnellan also makes a virtue of having a simple set. Sometimes we see  action that is “backstage”, sometimes we are seeing it being performed “onstage” – and the flipping back and forth from the stage to behind the scenes offers all the fun of Noises Off, while fleshing out the idea that is at the heart of this adaptation, as it is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work – namely, that the performances of actors merely make explicit what people do in other aspects of their lives: they perform at the court of Elizabeth, or in the arrangement of marriages, or in the application of the law or diplomacy. It might be clichéd to come away from this performance observing that all the world is a stage, but that indeed is the point it wants to make.

So it’s clever and touching and very well directed and beautifully designed and funny….

And yet… It’s slightly disappointing in parts.

The pace isn’t quite right yet, perhaps because the show is still early in its run. The film has many good jokes, but a lot of them were lost when I saw it earlier today – and indeed some of the dialogue was inaudible, at least to me: it was drowned out by stage business or spoken into the back of the stage. I also found it difficult to warm to the performance of Viola (perhaps too much influenced by the ones I’d seen in Two Gents), which I found to be occasionally affected without ever being affecting – I don’t think we have enough time to warm to the character.  So I was surprised to find myself missing Gwyneth Paltrow (having listened to the most recent Coldplay album more often than I should have done, I did not think myself capable of such a feeling…).

And some of the other characterisations felt like missed opportunities.  In the film, Wessex was played as a genuinely unlikable character –  and as someone we could genuinely imagine existing. Here he is written and performed more as a buffoon: full of a bluster that appears designed to hide his own impotence and lust. He’s not much of a threat to Will, and thus the sadness of Viola’s forced marriage to him does not seem quite as upsetting as it did in the film.

I also found the production and script a little too willing to be ingratiating. One of the great things about the film script was that it had so many references to his plays – I loved the way it segued into  Twelfth Night at the end, for example. Most of those references are retained, but (unless I am misremembering) it seems like many more have been added.

Some of them are indeed very funny: “Out Damn Spot” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” from Macbeth are deployed to great comic effect (though the reference to Banquo’s ghost from the film feels thrown away here). There’s also an amusing allusion to Malvolio towards the end. But there are some jokes that seem a little too keen to please – a reference to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar felt a bit obvious to me, and I thought that at one stage I heard the ‘out vile jelly’ line from Lear. And when at the end Romeo and Juliet is declared a “palpable hit” I wondered if the actor was actually going to turn and wink at the audience. So when the actors break off from the curtain call to give us an Elizabethan dance (as would have happened in Shakespeare’s time too, of course), it all feels like they are trying too hard to put a smile on our faces… In short, the Disney starts to show after a while.

There is one new allusion which works well – and that’s the inclusion of a dog (taken straight from Two Gents). But perhaps Shakespeare in Love might have been better off if it had instead taken more notice of the darker elements of Two Gentlemen. The betrayal by one friend of another and the attempted rape of a young woman appear in both plays, but are rushed through here in what feels like a race to get us to the end. Shakespearean comedy is always most successful when its darker elements are emphasised – as when we felt sorry for Malvolio and Olivia in Wayne Jordan’s recent Twelfth Night, for example. But there is no darkness here. There isn’t even much shade.

This is not to say that Shakespeare in Love is bad but rather that it could be (and may still become) better. In its desire to please it seems to betray an anxiety, a wish to be liked, that is perhaps understandable but wholly unnecessary. The play is a hit; it will almost certainly be going to Broadway, and it is likely to be enjoyed there too. We will probably find it showing up in the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, sometime around 2022, after it’s been everywhere else. So perhaps the cast will slow down, taking time to flesh out their roles a bit more – and remember that, since this is a comedy, we should spend at least some of the time feeling disturbed and upset.

Having said all that, I am certainly in a minority in my views on Shakespeare in Love – reviews have been largely positive.  Here’s the trailer for Shakespeare in Love:

And the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Both are worth seeing – but if you have to pick one I’d recommend the bad Shakespeare done well over the brilliantly directed re-imaginging of Shakespeare – which has the odd effect of seeming to reduce his importance, even as it places him centre-stage.

The Silver Tassie at the NT

I am just back from  a very good production of The Silver Tassie at the National. I need some time to digest it before I can write something detailed, but wanted to share some thoughts straightaway

The last time I saw this play, it was in a 2010 production directed by Garry Hynes for Druid. I caught it at the Gaiety Theatre – a venue for which it was well suited, both in terms of scale (it’s a big play) and theatre history (Tassie has its roots in music hall and melodrama, genres that the Gaiety was somewhat associated with).

As often happens with Druid, one of the first things that Hynes did in that production was to de-familiarise the play. Druid audiences often arrive at the theatre thinking they know what they’re going to see: “this is a play by John B. Keane/Sean O’Casey/Martin McDonagh – so we all know what that means”. This is especially true for O’Casey, a writer cursed by the fact that audiences think they know his work extremely well, when in fact they only know three of the 20+ plays that he wrote. So with Tassie Hynes immediately faced the challenge of preparing audiences for the fact that they were not watching Juno or Plough.

She did this by heightening the theatricality of the play. The famous “difficult second act”, set in the trenches, has several expressionistic elements in O’Casey’s script – a large gun, the use of music and chanting, the use of poetic language, and so on. The Druid production exaggerated those elements so that, for example, Francis O’Connor’s set was dominated by an enormous cannon, while Davy Cunningham lit the backdrop in a  sickly luminous green (as shown in the image below).

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Similarly, the third act (set in a hospital ward) opened with John Olohan and Eamon Morissey standing in front of an enormous red curtain, both wearing bowler hats – placing them somewhere between Laurel and Hardy and Didi and Gogo. So the direction and design in the Druid production always ensured that the audience were distanced from the action (in a Brechtian sense) – they were always being reminded that they were watching a play – and thus were better able to go along with its strangeness.

That approach is probably necessary in Ireland, because O’Casey is so well known, but although Druid’s production was very well received when it toured to the UK, it’s also fair to say that audiences in England are less familiar with O’Casey and thus are in some ways likely to be more open-minded about his work.

Here Howard Davies as director plays the action fairly straight: the staging and performance styles are largely realistic, albeit to a heightened extent in the second act, and also in a particularly vivid and moving concluding coup de théâtre that highlights the role of women in the play. The second act here seems almost naturalistic; the use of song is strange but is not entirely unrealistic.  Where Hynes’s Tassie drew out the expressionist elements of the Dublin Trilogy (such as the scene with the Speaker at the window in Plough), Davies in contrast draws out the realistic elements that we find in, say, Juno and shows how they follow through into Tassie. It’s interesting that Davies’ Juno (staged at the Abbey a couple of years ago before a transfer to the NT) and this Tassie are very similar in tone and visual impact.

The overall impact of both Hynes’ and Davies’ Tassie is to confirm for me that this play is not an interesting failure (as it’s often described).  Having now seen two excellent but very different recent productions of the play (not to mention the excellent opera version, staged about 12 years ago I think), I think that we need to re-imagine the so-called Dublin Trilogy of Shadow, Juno and Plough as a tetralogy that includes Tassie. This is partly because audiences now have caught up with O’Casey: if you’ve seen a play like Godot you can understand the use of the comic double act in Act 3 of Tassie; if you’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, you can understand why O’Casey sets the final scene in an ante-room, a place that is close to but separate from a performance being staged nearby. Act 2 – the scene in the trenches – is of course thoroughly original, but it also anticipates many of the innovations and techniques of Brecht. In short, Tassie’s time has come.

So as I was watching tonight, I found myself imagining how wonderful it would be for an Irish audience to be able to see Tassie and the other three major plays in a single production, with a single ensemble. As the RSC did when they staged all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays back in 2008, the O’Caseys could be staged in order of composition (Shadow to Tassie), and they could also be staged in chronological order – Tassie, Plough, and Shadow – finishing with Juno. I feel we’d learn a lot during this so-called decade of commemorations in Ireland if we had the opportunity to see O’Casey being staged in this way.

I know that an idea like this was proposed a few years ago and was the subject of a disagreement between the Abbey and Druid. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out. The move from Tassie to Juno gives us an Ireland that was part of the UK, changing into a country that had just become independent. Think of that final scene that O’Casey gives us in Juno: two drunks in a hall while the two women at the centre of the play have left the stage, to raise a baby that would be treated as an outcast in Ireland because its parents were unmarried. O’Casey gives us a vision of independent Ireland that still has relevance: he presents it as a place that would be intolerant of women, vicious towards “illegitimate” children, easily exploited by wealthy elites (especially from abroad) – and a place, finally, which would be a comfortable enough home for feckless wasters and cute hoors like Captain Boyle and Joxer. Juno is a play that anticipates many of independent Ireland’s worst failures, and can warn us against repeating them.

Leaving that (probably unrealistic) idea aside, there’s a lot in this production to be delighted by. I loved the set design by Vicki Mortimer, which thoroughly refutes the idea that this is an unstageable play. The tenement in Act One is stunningly transformed into a ruined monastery in Act Two – which in turn becomes the backdrop to the hospital in Act Three. The final act drops walls in front of these structures: we know they are there but can only see them fleetingly. The image below shows her design for Act Two – a very interesting contrast to the image above from Druid.

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Aside from the fact that Mortimer ensures we don’t get a break in the action (and energy) between the first and second acts (the transition is seamless), there’s also a suggestion that the Irish soldiers bring Dublin with them to the trenches – and that they bring the trenches back with them to the hospital when they return. And the final act shows that the First World War is a presence in Ireland that has been rendered invisible because a new “narrative” was imposed upon it. This is thematically very interesting, but it’s also theatrically very effective, giving unity and coherence to a play that is often seen as composed of different parts that don’t necessarily fit well together.

It’s also fascinating to me that the NT chose this Irish play to commemorate the beginning of the First World War. I found myself wondering how Tassie might speak to England’s sense of itself and its own history. The First World War, you could argue, brought about Irish independence: it’s impossible to imagine the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War without the context and impact of WW1. I found it very interesting that the second act of this production featured so many English accents: the Irish characters were shown here  interacting with English soldiers as equals in the trenches – so for this English audience the “them” that Irish characters often represent in other plays here became an “us” that represents a shared past. At a time when a lot of people in England are expressing anxiety about the possibility of Scottish independence, it’s really interesting to view a production that adopts a mildly nostalgic view on a time when Ireland’s position in the UK still seemed secure.

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Also interesting of course is that as yet we have not seen much in Ireland about WWI. The only thing I can think of that is  relevant might be the staging of War Horse at the Grand Canal Theatre, but while its show programme drew attention to the centenary of the outbreak of the war, that context went largely unremarked at the time. I do know that some companies are planning revivals and new productions that will address the legacies of the Great War in 2016, so perhaps we’ll all be complaining about commemorative plays by the time 2018 rolls around.

Two last things to note.

The acting. As you’d expect, some of the accents wander a bit from Dublin – to Cockney or Belfast. But this doesn’t detract or distract from the performances of an excellent cast. Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy are very funny as Si and Syl. Ronan Raftery is a very good Harry: heroic in the first act, creepy in the last one. There’s a lovely touching scene between him and Aidan Kelly towards the end, in which Kelly talks about being Raftery’s eyes, while Raftery can be his legs (a nod to Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand – no wonder he rejected the play). And Judith Roddy has an excellent performance as Susie Monican, the religious zealot who is humanized (and secularized) when she gains the attentions of a staff doctor. O’Casey has a lot to say here about social class and social climbing (and religion), but I understood with Roddy’s performance how Susie’s transformation is intended to parallel and contrast with the change in Harry. That impressed me.

And finally it was great to see a programme note in there from James Moran. He is the author of a book from Methuen by Sean O’Casey (declaration of interest: I am the series editor). It’s a very stimulating study that argues for a new look at O’Casey, and which comes at his work from a well informed theatrical perspective. It could (and should) stimulate further productions of his works. As I write above, O’Casey did keep writing plays for more than 30 years after Tassie. The Druid and NT productions show that this play deserves more attention. Are there any practitioners out there who might like to prove the same point about some of his other plays, such as Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, or The Bishop’s Bonfire?

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David Greig’s THE EVENTS – Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

In the spring of 1996, I spent a lot of time listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I’d been a fan of Cave anyway but that album seemed to push his work on to several entirely new levels. The biblical and southern gothic allusions that had dominated his earlier music (and his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel) were there, as was his characteristically blood-curdling wit. And musically the collection seemed to fuse every genre he’d been working in up to that point, giving us something that was somewhere between folk and punk. But what was striking was the combination of those different elements: it was as if his career had been leading up to this point for years, that he was finally tying together several strands that had previously been developed separately.

The subject matter of the songs was, as the title implies, murder: according to the Wikipedia page, more than 65 killings are described across the album’s 10 tracks. Yet while they were undoubtedly morbid – vicious, in fact – they could also be funny, as in Cave’s fabulously over-the-top rendition of “Stagger Lee”. They were  sometimes beautiful too, as in “Henry Lee”, Cave’s duet with PJ Harvey. And his duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, was revelatory in all sorts of ways, bringing both singers to entirely new audiences.

The mid-1990s was a time when an excessive, even hyperbolic, sense of violence was dominating the culture. Cave’s album came out just after Sarah Kane’s Blasted and McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane appeared, for example. As a final year student at UCD during that year, I used to find myself regularly going along to see Film Soc screenings of what were then massively popular movies: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and True Romance. These plays and films used violence for a variety of reasons, but Aleks Sierz still puts it best when he describes such work  as ‘in-yer-face’. The idea behind such work was to shock the audience, to force them to pay attention, to shake them out of complacency.

That “in-yer-face” quality was one of the reasons I loved Murder Ballads. It describes the killing of people but it felt that Cave was instead murdering conventions – about what music could and should be, about the barriers between pop and supposedly more serious forms of music, about the relationship between folk traditions and rock. Violence, he showed, is embedded in our culture – not just in Tarantino movies but in everything from the Bible to Milton. He showed us that what we regard as aberrant and dangerous can actually be a lot more familiar than we might wish to acknowledge.

One morning as I was preparing to leave for college, I was listening to Cave’s album while a housemate had the TV on in a different room. I was relaxed, singing along to Cave’s music – but was then  called into the TV room where reports were starting to come in of a school massacre in Dunblane in Scotland. As many people will  remember, on that day a man arrived at a primary school in a Scottish village, carrying his own  handguns. He opened fire on a group of 5 and 6 year-old children, killing almost everyone in the class, including the teacher. He then committed suicide himself.

I was watching this news report, shocked and upset – and became aware that from the other room Cave’s “O’Malley’s Bar” was still playing – a song about a man who enters a bar and murders his fellow townspeople. The contrast between  the reality of the massacre in Scotland with the sexed-up, rocked-up narration of murder by Cave suddenly seemed horrifying.

While I have since heard different songs from Murder Ballads in many different contexts, I don’t think I have ever again listened to it the whole way through. I know – and knew – what Cave was trying to do, but I felt that his album was using the coherence of musical form to bring order and occasionally even beauty to the theme of murder. In doing that, Cave was of course following a long tradition. But in the context of the Dunblane massacre, Cave’s songs seemed at risk of making such events instead seem in some way comprehensible or even normal:  normal not in the sense of being morally right, but rather in the sense of being something that we can and should expect as part of our ordinary lives. Making something comprehensible is of course not the same thing as making it seem justified. But it no longer seemed possible to listen to that album in the same way. I’m not criticising Cave in stating this; I just found the juxtaposition of the album with the real events too disturbing to shake off.

I was thinking about all of this while watching David Greig’s new play The Events, which is running at the Peacock as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. While it was  inspired by the massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik, it also speaks to such events as Dunblane, not to mention the many horrible atrocities that have recently taken place in America. It also resonated painfully with events in Athlone last weekend, when two young girls were lured from a birthday party and sexually assaulted.

The Events asks how a community can and should survive after such an atrocity has taken place, focussing on the figure of a choir-leader called Claire (Neve McIntosh) who is one of the few survivors after her choir is attacked by a young man with a gun. She engages in a series of dialogues with other people (all played by Rudi Dharmalingam): a journalist, a politician, her psychiatrist, a friend of the murderer, her partner, and then, finally, the killer himself. Along the way, she tries to attribute responsibility, to understand the murderer’s motivations and background – to try to make sense of ‘the events’ and by doing so to assuage some of her own guilt at surviving them.

The play reaches some surprising conclusions. But it’s not giving anything away to suggest that Greig doesn’t offer his protagonist or his audience comforting answers: all we are  left with is the choice to accept our confusion and try to move on as best we can.

What makes the play especially stimulating – and this is why I was reminded of Nick Cave – is that it is performed each night with a different community choir on stage. The choir’s presence might at first seem gimmicky but it quickly becomes evident that they are carrying a great deal of the emotional power of the production, their live bodies contrasting all too painfully with the people who had been murdered in the play.

I have written before on this blog about playwrights using music to make certain emotions seem more evident – a trend evident in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive and Elaine Murphy’s Shush, among many other examples. I am uneasy about this technique, especially when it is used by younger or less experienced writers, since it tends to be used to evoke a feeling that the dramatist ought to be able to inspire through writing (in other words, it can sometimes be a bit lazy). But in Greig’s play it works very well.

Firstly,  the choir  operates as a metaphor for community. We have a variety of people: male and female and of different ages and backgrounds and nationalities – and of course with different kinds of singing voice as well. What seems like a busy mass of individual bodies on-stage is transformed into a (literally) harmonious collective through music.  And importantly,  they are not using music to respond directly to the murders. Rather they use it as a way of asserting a shared determination to continue living – to remember and perhaps to forgive as well. So where Murder Ballads beautifies death,  The Events reminds us of the beauty of ordinary life.

In this respect, the play reminded me slightly of Karl Jenkins’s Armed Man, a mass for peace which (I believe) is very popular with choral groups around Ireland and the UK. Some of that music is militaristic and (as sometimes happens with Jenkins) a little bombastic. But the movements that deal with forgiveness and peace are often very moving, as can be heard in the “Benedictus” below (go on, click on it and listen as you read the rest of this post – you’ll enjoy it).

In other words, what impressed me about The Events is that it doesn’t try to make sense of murder. It instead says that our shared community with each other will help us to keep going when we realise that some aspects of life and death cannot be understood or explained or predicted.  Claire’s “healing” (if we can call it that) arises not because she has made sense of “the events” but instead because she has been embraced by a larger collective – who rescue her from her sense of isolation and confusion.

Strangely, this means that the play can feel somewhat under-powered. As Fintan O’Toole put it in his Irish Times column this weekend,

It is striking that Greig and [the play’s] director, Ramin Gray, more or less admit, in the form of the piece, that drama, on the scale they can manage, is not quite adequate to the task of exploring the big themes of racism, difference and decency.

I’d agree with that – I found myself surprised that Greig didn’t reach for a conclusion that was more profound or more substantial in some way. But his solution seems in some way more honest, more apt, more in keeping with the sense of helplessness that we feel when confronted with events like those in Dunblane or Utoya.

One other thought. For the play’s run at the Peacock, a different choir appears on stage at every performance. There’s a link here with Greig’s other works, and indeed with some of the things that have been done by the National Theatre of Scotland generally (this play is not produced by NTS but it has a similar approach to audience involvement).

In bringing choirs onstage, Greig is doing something similar to what he did with the brilliant Prudencia Hart, a play about Scottish folk music which is staged in pubs, performed as if everyone is at a session. So when we see the play we watch it not in a theatre but in a pub: the lights stay up, we are encouraged to buy pints, and it is all as raucous and as immersive as a good rural session would be. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen in the last 10 years, but that is another story.

We hear a lot in Ireland (and elsewhere) about plays being “relevant”. Too often theatre-makers and critics think that “relevant” means that we should see on stage all the bad news that we read about in the newspapers. But Greig’s Events and Prudencia Hart show a different approach to making theatre relevant: they share a knowledge that in every community in Ireland and Britain there are hundreds of people who travel out night after night to perform – in choirs, in pub sessions, in amateur drama, and in many other ways as well. One of the reasons for the vibrancy of Scottish theatre at present is that groups like the NTS have tried to connect with amateur performances – integrating them without appropriating them. They thus make theatre that is relevant to the ordinary lived experiences of such groups.

We’re not unaware of this kind of process in Ireland. One of the reasons that Louise Lowe’s work is so exciting is that it draws on the communities it depicts. And one of the reasons Macnas’s work is so inspiring is that it is a total fusion of professional and community theatre. But I still think there are lessons for us to take from plays like Prudencia and The Events – both of which show that our communities are performing in ways that could be better connected with our theatres.

On the bus back home after The Events I was working through these thoughts and decided I should give Murder Ballads another try, so I lined it up on the i-pod… I didn’t get to the end – in fact I only got to the half-way point. But I was glad to be reminded of how surprising and beautiful I had found this song when it first appeared 17 years ago: