The Events, an ATC Production, dir. David Greig, HOME (Number 1 First Street), Manchester, 22nd-25th October, 2014
Following the massacre of her multicultural church choir, village priest Claire (Derbhle Crotty) is struggling to deal with a multitude of mixed feelings and unanswered questions. Having witnessed a particularly brutal killing in the church’s music room, survivor guilt is very high on her list of concerns. A potential loss of faith seems to loom not far behind it. But most of all, she struggles with the simple question of why? Why would somebody known only as The Boy (Clifford Samuel) walk into her church with a gun? Why would he put a bullet in every person there that did not ‘belong’ to that community? And why would he ask Claire to decide between her life and that of one of her parishioners?
Much of The Events focuses on this quest for answers. Claire interrogates The Boy’s father, his friend, a journalist, and a politician to which The Boy showed loyalty. Their answers aren’t as straightforward as she hoped. She’s hoping that his childhood drove him to it, or mental illness, or maybe there’s an explanation in the way he’s treated at school. She rallies against the politician whose party he followed, and their racist views that so enthralled him. She needs a reason so that she can forgive him in the way that her faith expects her to. But writer David Greig very cleverly portrays a belief that in the aftermath of tragedy, reason is hard to come by.
In each performance of the play, a different choir will take the stage alongside the actors. On opening night, it was the turn of the SHE Choir, an all-female group that was borne out of the musical talents of The University of Manchester. Opening the play with uplifting and energetic versions of two Paul Simon songs, it seems at first that they will only be there for musical accompaniment. But it quickly becomes clear that they have a much more important role. They are in fact there to be a backdrop to Claire’s worsening mental state.
They hum a tense tune as Claire talks about her attempts to move forward with her life, they sing along to Dizzie Rascal’s Bonkers as she comes close to cracking, their hymns are interrupted as she becomes distressed by the meaning of their words, and, in an integral scene, they join her centre stage for a shamanic ritual as she attempts to bring their souls back to life. This, and many other scenes in the play, begins light-heartedly. But The Events has an impressive knack for tricking us into a false sense of security. Just as we’ve had a bit of a laugh at the choir prancing around the stage and chanting, one of them steps forward and tells Claire that they are all quitting. They want to sing pop songs and forget the tragedy. She won’t let them.
So, while not a musical, the music is every bit as important to the play as the dialogue. The choir, and pianist Magnus Gilljam, are just as crucial as the actors.
The choir also comes to represent another key theme in the play. With two actors playing almost every role in the production (Crotty as Claire and Samuel as everybody else) it is the choir that comes to represent community. When the choir quit on Claire, it is a signal to the audience of just how far she has strayed from her path. And it will be the choir that shows the importance of community in the closing scenes, once Claire has found a way to bring them back in.
It’s hard to fully do this play justice with words. The decision to include the choir in this way makes it a very unique performance, and that feeling is only heightened by the way in which Samuel plays a variety of characters. When first appearing as The Boy, he does seem a little overly dramatic and high-pitched, but once you realise that he has to differentiate between almost a whole cast, it is impossible not to be impressed by his versatility. He is convincing when funny, angry, disturbed, deceitful, and even when crawling about the stage pretending to be a fox. Crotty is no less impressive, particularly in the scenes when Claire’s attempts to control her anger are most apparent.
The Guardian made this their play of the year in 2013. It’s easy to see why. It’s innovative and original, energetic at the same time as being thought-provoking and distressing and, perhaps most importantly, it gets to the heart of matters that are discussed daily in our newspapers and on our TVs. In the middle of the great soundtrack and acting, and the impressive direction and script, there’s an important discussion about just what community is in the modern era. Why is it a multicultural choir that is gunned down? And what has influenced the gunman? The play warns of the dangers of treating anyone as an outsider, and it does it in a way that nobody has tried before. As if claiming their place as the heart of the play, it’s the choir that closes proceedings with a song entitled ‘We’re all in here.’ This sums up everything the play has tried to say. It’s an extremely powerful moment, and an extremely powerful play.