Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Events, Young Vic

Review: The Events, Young Vic

You see the crowd – a choir gathered around a piano – and you see the individual – a young man leaning against a chair, his head bowed. His trainers – zinging orange – catch your eye. You can’t miss him. The choir is predominantly white. The young man, Rudi Dharmalingham, is British Asian. There’s another figure onstage: Neve McIntosh. It takes a while to notice her; leaning against a wall; just as distant as Dharmalingham, but she’s hiding behind the group, where he’s facing it down.

McIntosh plays Claire, a left-wing, lesbian, denim and dog-collar type. She runs a local community choir; an inclusive, pointedly multicultural community choir. That choir is played – well, represented really – by a different community choir each night. They are seeing the play in full for the first time..

During one rehearsal not so long ago, a young man – dubbed the Boy in David Grieg’s script – entered the building and started shooting. At one point, he cornered Claire and one of her choristers and asked which of them ought to receive his final bullet. Claire survived. Others – we don’t know the exact numbers – didn’t.

The incident has since swallowed Claire whole. It has taken over her brain. It has challenged her faith. The need to – to what? To understand? To forgive? To avenge? To heal? – has occupied her life. Dharmalingham plays the young man, the gunman; a white-skinned nationalist. But he also plays everyone else in Claire’s life – her partner, her psychiatrist, a politician, the killer’s father. It’s as if she sees him in every face at every turn. So do we. Even though Dharmalingham has an equal claim to many roles, we can’t shake off the idea that he – The Boy – has shaped the world; the very thing he set out to do.

A Norwegian coffee song – dinky and jaunty – plants the idea of Utøya. A Scottish accent – McIntosh’s – brings Dunblane to mind. Mention of a school recalls Sandy Hook. And, inexcusable and racist though it is, a skin-tone – Dharmalingham’s – triggers thoughts of 7/7.

These events did – do – shape the world. They make a part of it synonymous with death; they immortalise an individual and they give a cause exposure, perhaps even momentum. You cannot think of Utøya without also thinking of Anders Behring Breivik or Dunblane without Thomas Hamilton. These events change the world significantly, instantaneously. They wrench history in a particular direction.

The Events asks whether art can do likewise. Is it any match for such a ruptive force? Can it undo? Can it make scars disappear? Or can it at least cover them up?

Grieg refuses the easy, lazy answer to these questions; the one that simply asserts art’s restorative power, shrugs its shoulders and says it’s purpose in the world is obvious; the one that would simply say: ‘Because art.’

At one level, oddly, this is the view the killer subscribes to. Musing on the best way to make his mark on the world, to leave a lasting impression, he sets up a choice between art and violence. “And I was never any good at drawing,” he says – a tangy soundbite that suggests a man rehearsing his own legend. The thought recalls Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and the idea that, while not everyone can rise to become president, anyone can take their place in history by killing one.

We might say the choir stands for art and, as such, it has two main functions: first, it – the art of choral singing – brings a community together, and second, it becomes a process of understanding. If these are two arguments used in favour of art, to justify its utility, even its necessity, Grieg picks the flesh off both and leaves them threadbare.

Community first.

Go back to that opening image: two individuals either side of a group.

The killer is certainly an individual. He isolates himself from his community. He lives to set himself apart, to leave his mark on the world. He cocoons himself through shamanistic rituals; isolating himself both physically and mentally, taking natural narcotics while sealed off from the world in his flat. He rejects the “cheap togetherness” that he sees at the heart of liberalism and multiculturalism. (So does Greig, I think.)

But what of the play’s other individual? Claire. She is the community leader. She conducts the choir. She directs it. And when she does so, she removes herself from its body. She faces in the opposite direction. Isn’t she just as cut off from the group as he is? Isn’t any position of social or societal responsibility?

In fact, Claire uses her choristers – most obviously when she attempts to perform a collective shamanistic ritual of her own, but that act makes you realise that she’s always using them somehow – as an assertion of her ego, perhaps, as a form of cultural capital. They are means to an end for her, just as they are means to an end for the killer. Greig paints himself into a very difficult corner; how to vindicate her actions and damn his? The difference could be one of scale, not category. His treatment of them is worse, exponentially so perhaps, but hers is still bad. It hasn’t their interests at heart.

The gunman talks about tribes a lot. He talks about protecting his own. He deploys a fable about an Aborigine stood looking out to sea as these unknown alien ships bear down upon his land, bringing with them a threat to his way of life, his tribe, his people. He sees his act as equivalent to the Aborigine taking arms to protect his people.

At some level, though, isn’t Claire doing the same? Her own isn’t so much the choir, as the people in charge of choirs across the country. In other words: the elite that would separate themselves – without necessarily meaning any malice – from the masses. Claire is protecting her own dominance and that of her ilk, her tribe.

Three days before I saw The Events – the Young Vic’s press night being my second viewing – the Guardian published a piece by Paul Dacre. It’s a right of reply, really; a justification of the decision to published the infamous article on Ralph Milliband with ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’ as its headline. Quite quickly, however, Dacre goes on the attack:

“The hysteria that followed is symptomatic of the post-Leveson age in which any newspaper which dares to take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob who the BBC absurdly thinks represent the views of real Britain.”

He continues: “It is that the Mail constantly dares to stand up to the liberal-left consensus that dominates so many areas of British life and instead represents the views of the ordinary people who are our readers and who don’t have a voice in today’s political landscape and are too often ignored by today’s ruling elite.”

The political motive behind the shooting is the gunman’s nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalist ideology. It’s one he shares – to a certain degree – with Anders Behring Breivik. There is a point where he (or perhaps its the politician?) elaborates on it by saying, essentially, that the social elite – people like Claire, essentially – needn’t worry about immigration; they “float above it” on the basis that their jobs are safe from its effects and their salaries aren’t undermined by it. If anything, we might presume that they benefit, from cheaper services and additional cultural opportunities. It’s harder, the gunman reasons, to feel that way when you’re directly affected, when your livelihood is at stake.

So, leaving aside their actions, whose opinion really chimes with majority opinion: Claire’s multiculturalism or the Boy’s nationalism? And if it’s the latter, is the majority view being blocked out by the self-sustaining, self-serving social hierarchy? To make that majority view heard takes an act to puncture that establishment; an act of extreme, jolting violence, perhaps. How then can we talk of a truly democratic society? How can we talk of genuine community?

Which brings us to the second overarching question in The Events: understanding.

Claire’s need to understand motors the play. She looks in every direction to try and comprehend the Boy’s actions – the event – seeking out his family, psychologists and a politician whose ideology he cites. She needs to know why – and without an answer, she cannot move on. She needs to rationalise what happened. (Can she ever consider that she might – at least in part – be the reason herself?)

One of Greig’s easier trains of thought is his attempt to differentiate – no, rather to dissolve any differentiation – between madness and evil, at least in the way we identify them, as symptoms, if not as root causes. Both, the play proposes, must be defined against social norms. Unlike insanity, which is usually defined as or by a failure of causal reasoning, madness is only perceived as and through behaviour deemed abnormal or incomprehensible (to others, to the majority). Evil, meanwhile, is dubbed “empathy deficient;” that is to say, it is (re)defined in terms of the inability to understand and share in the feelings of others, that is, of the majority. (This has a significant impact on the question of understanding, which I’ll come back to in due course.)

Little wonder, then, news outlets so often talk of the lone gunman; the perpetrator is hermetically-sealed by those that construct a narrative around them, cut off from the rest of us. It’s almost as if to reassure the rest of us that we aren’t equally capable of such acts; that there is something fundamentally, essentially, categorically different about that individual. There’s the killer and there’s us, the majority. We – society – cannot allow an overlap. (See also: the artist.)

So why do we need to rationalise? To move on as a community, as a society, yes. Actually, let’s rephrase the question: why does society need to rationalise? Or another way still: why do the figureheads of society need to rationalize? To neutralise the threat, to explain it away – as madness, as evil, as outside – to restore the social order and retain their position at the helm. The obvious tension here being that explanations in terms of madness and evil also eradicate the need to understand; they place the act beyond reason and so define it away.

Claire is not alone in her need to understand. In two sequences, the choir are given lines – the first a string of questions aimed at the Boy (favourite music, sexual preferences etc), the second a string of theories. The latter list comes with a sense of projection; the idea being that the killer can stand for anything, a blank canvas on which people can hang whatsoever bogeyman they choose: all of them things that we want to excise from our community, to see as outside of it.

But Claire’s need to understand also stems from her personal need to forgive. She can forgive the act on account of madness and evil (particularly when defined as an empathy deficiency) because these are things outside of the individual’s control. Her determination to forgive is, in part, an egotistical act; a personal need that gives her cultural capital in the community. But again, when you think of Claire in terms of the elite, that forgiveness takes on a different quality. What is forgiveness, if not the erasure of something troubling? It is a painting over, a sealing off, a restoration. All this feeds back into the notion of a self-sustaining society: one that explains away and eradicates anything that threatens its current order, one that chews up and spits out any difference.

How does Claire forgive? In a way, she puts herself in the killer’s shoes. She goes to visit him in prison, armed with a powdered poison mushroom, capable of killing him, in other words. At the last second, she saves his life – just as, if you look at it carefully, he saved hers. Just as the Boy had her and a chorister cornered with one bullet remaining, now she stands in front of him, armed with a poisoned teacup.

Essentially, Claire was only able to attempt to understand and forgive the killer because he had already spared her life. Perversely, she owes him and in choosing not to kill him when she has the chance, she replicates his act and repays the debt.

There is a difference though: when Claire and the chorister found themselves cornered, asked which one should die, both offered to sacrifice themselves. It’s a moment that proves altruism does exist – indeed, it’s the ultimate act of altruism, total self-sacrifice – but it only came about because of the Boy’s action. The gunman somehow demonstrates that – for all the problems of a structured society, for all that that community is really a hierarchy – community still exists. It is as if the simple fact of his existence, the simple fact that he is an outsider, proves the simple fact that he is outside of something, the simple fact of a community’s existence. If it didn’t exist, he would have no need to attempt to destroy it. Community exists not as a concrete thing, perhaps, but in more processual terms: in an act of altruism, one that puts others before one’s self.

So here then is the production’s own altruistic act: it is the choir that freely gives themselves over – their time, their bodies, their voices – to someone else’s purpose. They lend themselves to the artists, to Grieg and Ramin Gray, to the company. They do not know entirely what they will stand for onstage, having not seen the play before taking part in it, but they do so on trust. In that way, The Events proves that there is such a thing as society.

Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

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