Theatre

A masterful portrayal of the survivor of a mass shooting bears witness to the challenges of faith, healing and compassion. By Peter Craven.

Malthouse Theatre’s ‘The Events’

Johnny Carr, Catherine McClements and The KeyTones Choir
Credit: Jamie Williams

It’s a bracing and exhilarating thing to see a production of a play that incorporates a choir and depicts the horrors of a mass serial killing that is not gimmicky or merely modish, that dazzles the audience and dashes it to the ground with something a bit like pity and terror. And this is what The Events with Catherine McClements – mightily impressive in the leading role of the female priest – does with great effectiveness.

“Events” were the things that were most feared by politicians, according to Harold Macmillan. And we saw Clare Watson’s dynamic and commanding production of David Greig’s restatement of the Anders Breivik killings in Norway not on the first night but the day after the Brexit referendum had hurled Britain out of the European Union, leaving the country to whatever enigma or parody of a finest hour no one knows.

The Events uses a variety of choirs to sing and to improvise, and the effect – weirdly and a bit ravishingly – is dimly akin to Greek tragedy.

McClements plays an Anglican priest – in a Scotland that is all but transposed to Australia in this accent-deaf production – who has experienced a mass shooting and who confronts the young man who almost killed her along with many others. Johnny Carr plays the killer and a variety of other characters who talk to her sagely, suavely, uncomprehendingly.

Greig’s play is a remarkably skilled distillation of a contemporary horrorscope, using the outline of the Breivik story – in particular the attitude to Muslims and foreigners – rather as Sophocles or Euripides might have used the House of Atreus and the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra and then the vengeance exacted by Orestes and Electra. The fact that the play is also shadowed by the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, is just one of those black associative shadowings between life and art.

The priest who witnessed it all feels as though she is losing her soul, without any of the consolations of her faith. The man who at some level “killed” her is presented with a virtuosic multifaceted skill in terms of the rainbow of lurid but fascinating obsessions –Vikings, bloodlusts, mythologies of different shades of hallucination and evolutionary gobbledegook – so that The Events gives the strongest sense of an innocent, all-but-ordinary woman who is made, by way of her witnessing, the victim of a modern world that is both intimately familiar to us and alien and terrible.

If the play has an element of melodrama that sometimes topples into excess, as in the woman’s delineation of the excruciating tortures she would like to inflict on the murderer, this is consistently outweighed by the sheer imaginative stamina by which it makes such a mighty stab at a terrible subject, one that reduces the audience to a state beyond the sentimentalisation of a collective distanced grief.

And the chorus – in our case The KeyTones Choir, who sang with an absolutely appropriate skill and sense of dramatic reality – builds into this weird dislocation of a documentary drama an impressive amateur sense of community that is in no way lame or cheesy.

The same goes for the music itself, both the soupy pop bits and the traditional hymns: they actually function as moving correlatives of the ghastly central action and neither usurp it nor sound artily clunky, as, say, choruses normally do when they provide interludes to the dialogues of Aeschylus and his successors.

The Events is a fascination of a dramatic idea that is put into action quite commandingly in this Belvoir St, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Malthouse co-production. McClements is powerful as the cleric because she is all at once shattered and nice, feminine and brutally intense. She is a commanding actress who has the enormous advantage that she doesn’t try to be pretty and she is not interested in being liked.

The upshot is a performance made of steel that nonetheless has its own complexity. McClements captures the carapace of churchy charity, the natural sweetness of an altruistic person who tries to do unto others, together with the ravaged countenance of someone who feels that her heart has been turned to stone and worse than stone.

And the script, at times, lightens the palette with many-coloured surprises when we discover – bewilderingly, but then it figures – that this woman of God has alienated her choir by getting it to perform dithyrambs and psychodramatic shriekings that are clearly as weird as the mythographies that have bounced about in the mind of the perpetrator. And the fact of the choir’s decision to forsake her, in a note read by one of its members, works as a superb found object in this production.

It is McClements, though, who holds this show implacably and superbly, even if there are odd moments where you wonder what a more automatically and instinctively sympathetic actress – a Helen Morse or a Sigrid Thornton – could have done with the terrible matter that is rehearsed here. At the end of the day you conclude that it is hard to imagine anyone bettering her.

The same is not true of Johnny Carr as the murderer and the crowd of ancillary voices. He doesn’t have the range or the pyrotechnical skills to re-create the voices and mannerisms of a whole theatre of characters – shamans and journalists as well as the priest’s lesbian lover – though he is effective enough in his primary role as the perpetrator who does and doesn’t seem equal to the enormity of what he has done.

The Events is a pretty dazzling piece of theatre. It is not flawlessly performed, but it is utterly effective because of the overall strength of the writing, the authority of McClements’ performance and the speed and sureness of touch of Clare Watson’s direction. Of course, it helps that the bright idea behind Greig’s script is that rarest thing: an example of dramatic innovation.

It all shines when put next to the weird and awful version of that great Billy Wilder film, Double Indemnity, which the Melbourne Theatre Company is sporting at the moment in a Sam Strong production that looks for long, revolving moments as if it is set in front of the lifts at the Arts Centre.

Strong himself, a fine director on a good day, might have been a safer pair of hands for the revival of David Hare’s Skylight, a play seen in the National Theatre Live broadcast in 2014 with a performance of magnificent bareness and truth by Carey Mulligan. Anna Samson, one of our best younger actresses, cannot match this, though in the second half of the play she drops the ponderous old-style Received Pronunciation she has donned for the role and acts with notable speed and assurance.

On the other hand, the veteran Colin Friels is lumbering and awful in the Bill Nighy/Michael Gambon role of the older man. He has a hideous accent – half yobbo Australian, half poor imitation of The Bill – and the performance – which is bound to improve; he “dried” and called for the prompt twice on opening night – seems misconceived.

And in a theatre world like this, The Events shines and shines despite the terrible darkness of its subject matter. It’s hard to imagine it not thrilling all comers. Its musical director, Luke Byrne, has a marvellous histrionic elan at the piano and the chorus is a poignant reminder of the common folk of the earth, the grace we can muster and the things that we all as a community have to suffer through.

 

Arts Diary

FESTIVAL Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest

The Apple Shed, Huon Valley, July 15-17

OPERA The Barber of Seville

QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, until July 23

VISUAL ART Michael Taylor: A Survey 1963-2016

Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, until October 2

MULTIMEDIA HERE&NOW16 / GenYM

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until July 16

FESTIVAL Noosa Long Weekend Festival

Various venues, Noosa, July 15-24

VISUAL ART Peter Booth

Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne, until August 6

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA Mathieu Briand: Et in Libertalia Ego, Vol. II

MONA, Hobart, until July 11

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Choral grief". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.