About the only thing that references Norway in David Greig’s unusual play THE EVENTS, now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop in a production by Scotland’s Actors Touring Company, is “The Norwegian Coffee Song,” sung early on by a choir gathered around a piano. However, the play’s inspiration, so to speak, is the catastrophic murder spree conducted by Anders Breivik in 2011, when he used a van bomb to kill eight people in Oslo and then shot another 69 at a summer camp. Since nothing in the play specifically references these events, you might never connect the dots, although the play itself, for all its ambiguities, gradually makes clear that it’s trying to come to terms with what it calls a “mass shooting event.”THE EVENTS, directed by Ramin Gray, was an award-winning hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. It has subsequently toured Europe and the U.S. for two years, and also been produced in Austria and Norway in the language of those countries. It’s both linear and nonlinear, poetic and prosaic, contemplative and dramatic, and written in a combination of direct address monologues and straightforward dialogue, both occasionally elliptical.
The work grew out of a research trip to Norway by author Greig and director Gray in 2011, during which they met the female vicar-community choir leader who became the central character. According to the program notes, the people they spoke to included “an anthropologist, post-traumatic stress specialist, and a survivor of the massacre. . . .” Early in its development, THE EVENTS created a ruckus because of a fallacious report that it was going to be a musical about the Breivik tragedy; it’s nothing of the sort. The action occurs in Scotland, not Norway, and everything has been subsumed into a universal meditation on the meaning of violence and hatred, as well as the power and love of community.
|Clifford Samuel, Neve McIntosh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
The auditorium faces the vast space of the New York Theatre Workshop’s large stage area, devoid of conventional scenery and with its brick walls completely exposed. As efficiently designed by Chloe Lamford and lovingly lit by Charles Balfour, there’s a set of low risers upstage, gold drapes that rise to cover part of the rear wall, a piano, tables with coffee and the like at stage right, and stacks of stackable chairs—everything suggests a neutral space for a church choir’s rehearsing. What follows blends the singing of a choir of 20, under the direction of Claire (Neve McIntosh), a lesbian preacher of liberal beliefs, dressed in tight jeans and a black shirt with a minister’s collar.
A young man, the Boy (Clifford Samuel), begins to talk to Claire after she welcomes him to join the choir. As he begins a monologue about an aboriginal boy and his reaction to ships bringing white convicts to Australia, with their religion, violence, and disease, it’s not clear who he is, but as the piece proceeds we begin to realize he’s the youth who carried out a mass murder at the church. However, he’s also multiple other people, real and imagined, including a right wing ideologue to whose ideas the boy was exposed and a journalist, with whom Claire engages. She, you see, was hiding with another woman when the killer found them and asked which one he should kill. Suffering PTSD, she has become relentless in her attempts to come to terms with the slaughter. At the end, she visits the killer in his prison. What will be her response: revenge, empathy, forgiveness?
The playwright himself, in an interview, offered the following as his themes:
How do you explain the inexplicable; who is us and who is the other; what does it mean to immerse yourself in a group; what does it mean to be alone; how do we heal; is understanding possible in the face of great evil; why are these sorts of events perpetrated, so often, by lost young men; are humans innately good or innately bad; did we evolve to be a tribe or to be multicultural; did we evolve to be kind or cruel; is there a soul… goodness… that does seem a lot of themes. In the end I think the them [sic] of the Events is… how do we understand ourselves.
Throughout, the action, which slips around in time, is interrupted by beautiful, sometimes spiritual, music, composed by John Browne, and exquisitely sung by the choir as conducted by pianist Magnus Gilljam. Unusually, a different local choir—representative of the spirit of community—appears each night; they not only sing, but—using scripts or pieces of paper—occasionally interact with Claire. At one point, Claire has them doing the kind of relaxation exercises common in beginning acting classes. Their somewhat self-conscious presence opposite the polished Ms. McIntosh only makes their human qualities more palpable, deepening our concern for answers to the unanswerable questions surrounding why horrors such as Breivik’s murders occur. The night I attended, the excellent choir was the Village Light Opera Group.
|Neve McIntosh (right, second step), Choir. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
THE EVENTS, which runs 90 minutes, is too often confusing, and it has infusions of irrelevant artiness, such as the class exercises, or having the Boy put on a display of expert rapid rope jumping as he delivers one of his longer monologues. But it’s continually interesting, and the Scottish-accented Ms. McIntosh and the British-accented Mr. Samuel are both fine actors, although it would have helped for him to differentiate among his characters. Ms. McIntosh has been with the play all along yet, during the curtain calls, was so overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude to the evening’s choir that huge pools formed in her eyes, a tribute to her sensitivity and commitment to a work that is clearly of great meaning to her. THE EVENTS won’t answer the questions it raises (no person or work of art can), but it will probably make you try to think about them yourself.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th Street, NYC
Through March 22