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: