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:

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David Greig in Limerick, 2006

I’ve been surprised by the response to my post about British Drama and Irish Playwriting yesterday. While not everyone who opened the page will have read the article, the large number of clickthroughs  suggests that there is a fair bit of interest in the topic.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who read the article, shared it, and commented upon it.

The debate reminded me of a public event that I participated in about seven years ago in Limerick. It was a public discussion (supported by the Arts Council) in the Belltable about the drama of David Greig, set up to coincide with Island’s production of Outlying Islands. The panel included Annabelle Comyn, who was directing Pyrenees at the Project at that time. It also featured Karl Wallace (who directed Outlying Islands) and Philip Howard who at that time was Artistic Director of the Traverse (who had premiered many of Greig’s plays). The Belltable was packed with an enthusiastic, varied and engaged audience.

It was one of those great nights where you’re in a room with a bunch of people who love theatre.

The discussion took in Greig’s career up to that point, focussed on when his plays were “Scottish” and when they were “British”, and considered whether the distinction mattered all that much (it did, said Philip Howard). If I remember correctly, Annabelle Comyn spoke eloquently about how Greig needs to be seen as a European writer too, and we talked about the need for more European influences in Irish theatre. And Karl Wallace spoke about the joy of directing one of Greig’s plays for an audience who knew nothing about that writer. We talked about the importance of seeing new British work in Ireland, and there was lots of discussion of what Irish theatres can learn from the Scottish National Theatre, which famously has no building, instead being dedicated to touring.  The overlaps and correspondences between Scottish and Irish theatre were also discussed. It was a really great debate.

Things have changed since then of course. The Belltable is no longer open. Island is gone. Annabelle Comyn’s career has deservedly blossomed, of course, and Karl Wallace is now at Siamsa Tire. And the only other Greig play I’ve seen in Ireland is the brilliant Prudencia Hart (though other productions of his plays have been staged), which toured to Galway last year. So while the picture is not entirely bleak, a lot of the promise and optimism evident that night did not come to fruition. And in particular there was a sense of something really exciting brewing in Limerick – and while there are great people working there, it’s fair to say that there are problems there too.

I’m also struck by the fact that the event went unreported at the time – which seemed a real shame, as I’m sure it would have been of interest to the wider community. And if it was difficult to get coverage for events outside of Dublin back then, it’s significantly more difficult now, of course. But that’s another story.

At the time I reviewed Outlying Islands for The Irish Times – really just a brief notice. I later rewrote and expanded that into a joint review of Pyrenees which appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine. I’m pasting below an edited version, just for interest…

Pyrenees by David Greig

Hatch Theatre Company

Directed by Anabelle Comyn

With Karen Ardiff, Mark Lambert, Ronan Leahy, Gern Ryan

Project Arts Centre

23 August – 9 September 2006

Reviewed 9 September 2006

And

Outlying Islands by David Greig

Island Theatre Company

Directed by Karl Wallace

With Sam Corry, Ailsa Courtney, Gerard Murphy, Colin O’Donoghue

Belltable Arts Centre

12-23 September 2006

Reviewed 14 September

By Patrick Lonergan

Irish theatre, like the Irish economy, is much more interested in exports than imports. This is particularly noticeable in our attitudes towards recent British theatre. We celebrate the achievement of our playwrights in London constantly, and our government invested huge amounts of money in bringing the best of Irish theatre to Edinburgh this year. But although we’ve seen a small number of productions and readings of new British plays during the last five years, most of the traffic between these islands has gone in one direction only.

The near simultaneous production in Ireland of two plays by David Greig, one of Britain’s most exciting young writers, is a welcome response to this situation. Unlike his flashier counterparts, Greig avoids using cheap shock tactics or deliberately provocative themes, instead producing work with depth and substance. He’s also willing to try out different ways of writing, to engage in genuine experimentation. This means that although Outlying Islands and Pyrenees are very different from each other, both share important characteristics: they trust audiences’ intelligence and actors’ skills, exploring contrasting themes that require and reward serious attention.

Anabelle Comyn’s production of Pyrenees offers an excellent introduction to Greig’s works, giving us a formally exciting play that blends everything from Hitchcockian suspense to European expressionism. It starts with a premise that seems derivative of countless Hollywood movies, from Memento to the Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry. A man (Mark Lambert) is found unconscious at the foot of a mountain: he cannot remember his name or anything about his past; but suspects he may be British. In an opening scene that alludes to another play about fragmented identity – Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape – the man is interviewed by Anna, a British embassy official played by Karen Ardiff (who stepped in at short notice for Fiona Bell, who was taken ill before opening night). They seek clues about the man’s identity, considering in turn his accent, his preoccupations, his emotional state. Sexual chemistry builds between them, interrupted occasionally by the proprietor of this duo’s hotel (Ronan Leahy). But all seems to be progressing well between them until, just before the end of the act, a woman called Vivienne (Ger Ryan) arrives, claiming to be the man’s wife.

Our expectation will naturally be that the second act will answer the questions raised in the first. To a certain extent, this proves to be the case; but Greig’s answers raise other important issues. The Man’s amnesia seems partially to arise from a desire to forget who he is, to flee his past – is this possible? Why does the proprietor continue to adopt different identities, at one moment pretending to be a busboy (who will be insulted when no tip is offered to him); at another reverting to his role as the hotel’s manager (who will be insulted when a tip is offered to him)? Is Vivienne telling the truth about the man’s past and, if so, does that truth matter? And is Anna really from the British Embassy? We also learn late in the second act that Pyrenees is a sequel of sorts to another Greig play, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message… (1999), which will be a huge pay-off to those familiar with that earlier work.

The ultimate effect of the play’s second half is to leave the audience even more confused than they were in the first – and this is the play’s greatest strength: it provides answers but little clarity, and therefore invites us to consider whether our questions were worth asking in the first place. The play is much more than a standard meditation on the instability of identity; it instead shows that it’s possible to write a successful drama that still refuses to meet audiences’ expectations about character, plot, and closure. Of course, writers like Beckett made this point a long time ago – but the difference between their work and Greig’s is that Pyrenees retains many of the things that Beckett rejected: characters the audience can fully identify with, a (more or less) naturalistic environment, and a linear plot that’s full of suspense and incident. Pyrenees thus manages to be philosophical, playful, and deeply engrossing simultaneously.

Outlying Islands is an entirely different play. Set in 1939, the action takes place on Gruinard, a tiny Scottish island which has been visited by two British scientists (Sam Corry and Colin O’Donoghue), who have been sent to catalogue and study the island’s birds. While there, they interact with the Gruinard’s sole inhabitants, Kirk (Gerard Murphy) and his niece Ellen (Ailsa Courtney).

The play could be seen in the tradition of island plays, from The Tempest to Friel’s Gentle Island – works that create a space where people can interact free of social constraint and convention. The men’s arrival – and their involvement in the death of Kirk – has the effect of liberating Ellen, who gains in power and stature as the action progresses. She becomes something like the director of a play, leading the two scientists in a strange lament for her uncle that moves from wake scene to Laurel and Hardy. That power is eventually asserted sexually, in a remarkably intimate and sensitive scene that brings the action to its emotional climax.

The play also has a more immediate context. As in Friel’s Translations, in which an apparently innocent map-making expedition is a prelude to military action, Grieg’s play reveals that the scientists’ expedition has been arranged because the island is to be used as a testing ground for biological weapons: the men are cataloguing the island’s birds because the British ministry for war wants to establish exactly how many creatures they can kill with weaponised anthrax. This political theme comes to the foreground towards the play’s conclusion, with interesting consequences for Ellen in particular. Given that Outlying Islands premiered in 2002 – at a time when Hans Blix was running around Iraq in search of biological weapons – the play is an obvious attempt on Greig’s part to use his country’s past to examine its present. But the clash he reveals between his characters’ natural inclinations and their political duties has considerably broader resonance.

In a bold move that could be seen as an important statement about the future of Limerick theatre, director Karl Wallace and designer Diego Pitarch transformed the Belltable for this production, tearing out the stage and seating, and asking the audience to sit on uncomfortable benches dotted around the auditorium. The actors move amongst the audience, adding to the production’s intimacy, and quickly bridging the gap between Limerick in 2006 and Gruinard in 1939. But the production places further demands on the audience by running without an interval. The risk paid off, however: the emotional intensity of the piece was maintained throughout, despite the distraction of the increasingly uncomfortable seating arrangements. It was in fact refreshing to see a theatre company so willing to trust its audience’ intelligence, as well as their powers of endurance.

Annabelle Comyn adopted a considerably different approach to Pyrenees: where Wallace brings his audience directly into the action, she instead presents her production on a raised platform (designed by Paul O’Mahony), with the fourth wall firmly in place. This was entirely appropriate to the play’s tone and themes. Whereas Outlying Islands invites us to explore the difference between personal desire and public duty, Pyrenees instead asks us to examine a situation dispassionately and, insofar as possible, objectively: like most of the play’s characters, our job is to piece together evidence, to reach towards conclusions. Comyn’s direction keeps us at an appropriate distance from the performance, but never risks alienating the audience.

What both plays have in common is the extent to which they provide genuinely challenging roles to actors. Mark Lambert’s performance as the man in Pyrenees is a case in point: he must reveal a personality without having any back story or social and geographical markers to base it on. Lambert’s ability to convince us of his character’s individuality as well as his amnesia impresses throughout. Leahy’s proprietor is at perpetual risk of lapsing into racial stereotype: there is (deliberately) a touch of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel about him. Yet he avoids those risks, his nuanced performance often revealing the audiences’ own prejudices and expectations. Ardiff and Ryan have more difficult roles: Vivienne is the play’s only stable point, its only credible witness, while Anna is a disruptive and ultimately threatening presence. Each actor shows a clear understanding of her character’s function, without ever making her role seem functional.

The performances by Corry and O’Donoghue in Outlying Islands are also strong, with enjoyable supporting work by Murphy. But the highlight of the production is Ailsa Courtney’s work as Ellen. This is Courtney’s first professional production, and it’s evident from very early in the action that Wallace has made quite a discovery. Ellen’s develops dramatically during the play, with substantial differences evident between her inhibited and liberated personae. Courtney presents her character in a manner that coherently and convincingly reveals these different elements.

David Greig’s works might seem a difficult sell to Irish audiences: in Ireland, he’s a largely unknown playwright who deals with challenging themes that aren’t of explicit relevance to local audiences. Both Island and Hatch Theatre deserve credit, not only for producing his works, but for doing so with great conviction. Taken together, Outlying Islands and Pyrenees reveal that, although Greig can be seen as an important Scottish playwright, and as an important British playwright, he is quite simply one of the finest young dramatists currently working anywhere. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from him.