By David Greig | Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Silo Theatre | Q Theatre, Auckland | September 3-26
“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”—Anne Carson, Introduction to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides
The Events is a tragedy that takes place after the tragedy. Specifically, after an act of violence against a community. Inspired by the Norwegian mass-shooting perpetrated by Anders Breivik in July 22, 2011, the play refuses to be a mere response to that event and, instead, is a nuanced character study of a priest’s resulting trauma from a similar incident, and her attempts to come to terms with it. But it’s not simply a cold-blooded act. If it were, it’d be far less complex. That the play is called The Events is of note; it is plural not singular. There is never just one simple explanation.
Structurally, the play hops from scene to scene in a disjointed manner, reflecting the internal struggle of our protagonist as we follow her attempts to understand the killer’s intentions. The opening moments struggle slightly with this fragmented storytelling, and the clarity of the presentation comes together slower than it should. But, once settled, the play moves at a brisk pace, gaining momentum right through till the breathtaking finale.
One of the big calling cards for the show is that it brings a different community choir onto the stage every night. This could be a gimmick, but the result is a generous gift to the audience that feels essential to the spirit of the show, punctuating and heightening emotional cues, albeit sometimes to transparently manipulative effect. But when it works it simply works. Music articulates what words cannot—creeping under our skin and, dare I say, soul. When members of the choir are forced into the play on a one-on-one basis things are less assured, more amusing than engaging. Ultimately it’s the contrast between these non-professional actors and our stars that is most striking. Their responses are unrehearsed, opening up the possibility of new surprises every night. Even when inactive their presence haunts the space, turning it into a perpetual limbo.
But the stars are Tandi Wright and Beulah Koael, a formidable stage duo who guide us through the story with a cool confidence, but unafraid to burst with raw energy when necessary. As Claire the priest, Wright is a figure possessed with a desperate need to understand the killer’s actions. She brings a fractured sense of self to the role that is immediately compelling. As the killer, known simply as The Boy, Koael spends most of his time on stage inhabiting multiple roles, including (but not limited to) a father, lover, and shaman. He smartly plays against overacting and broad characterisations to convey his shifting personas, though there are a few early inhabitations that feel less seamless, relying on the audience being told who he is rather than just showing us. But these are minor reservations in a powerhouse performance that is both physically demanding and primal. If Wright is the play’s emotional constant, Koael is a shapeshifter refusing to be defined.
The set is a realistic community hall, but bare enough that we can be transported anywhere with merely some lighting changes and the evocative text. Simon Coleman’s work on both of these elements is indispensable to say the least. Though there are times the size of the space feels almost overwhelming, acting as an unnecessary distancing effect.
Playwright David Greig’s scope and ambition should not be underestimated. His script is as intimate as it is epic, finding a perfect balance between the two. And, despite the hideously dark subject matter, it’s not an entirely humourless affair either. The truths spoken are often deadpan and unsentimental, drawing uncomfortable laughs of knowing from the audience and, occasionally, even reverential silence. At worst, the play overreaches in its attempts to cover so much in its short 80-minute running time, leaving compelling ideas and stories only half-explored, such as colonisation and Claire’s disintegrating romantic relationship.
Impressive is director Sophie Roberts’s refusal to indulge in cheap melodrama. She embraces the plays as a sort of modern Greek tragedy, while avoiding reducing it to an onslaught of hysterics. So, when the play finally gets a bit chaotic and violent it’s utterly enthralling. There are, however, moments where the restraint might be too much, pushing the audience away from connecting with Claire’s journey on a deeper empathetic level.
Beneath Silo’s respectable production of The Events is a great play desperately fighting to claw its way out. I have no doubt that as the season progresses the world of the play will become clearer, eventually revealing a stronger emotional arc. As it is, the spectacular note the show ends on doesn’t quite feel earned, and I’m never as moved as I feel I should be. But aiming for such profound heights is nothing to scoff at and, nevertheless, results in a work that demands to be seen.
Poet Anne Carson likens the role of tragic drama to the act of a headhunter severing heads and tossing them away—an act of necessary catharsis. The Events is not a morality play with a nicely packaged message for audiences to take home. It doesn’t offer solutions, only questions. But it does offer the potential for catharsis, where we can experience rage and grief through the characters on the stage. More than just simply being entertained, that’s why we go to the theatre.
* * *
By Gérald Sibleyras; Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Alison Quigan
Presented by Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | September 3-26
Describing the synopsis of the play is somewhat pointless, in that nothing much happens, but that’s sort of the point. Set in 1959 in a French rest home for ex-soldiers, Heroes could be best described as a tribute and love letter to the veterans of WWI. And, on another level, it’s also a tribute to three longstanding stage veterans of our very own: George Henare, Ken Blackburn, and Ray Henwood.
What we have is a hangout comedy of the slice of life variety. The relationships between the characters and their lively banter is what pushes the barebones narrative, as they reminisce and fantasise through their long days. Comparisons to Waiting for Godot are hard to avoid, though more for the shared uneventfulness and repetitive natures rather than a common absurdist sensibility. It’s not trying to be life-changing theatre and doesn’t present itself as such.
While the script serves as a pleasant enough distraction, filled with old school wit and humour, the real reason to watch the show is to see three pros at work. The low-stakes and leisurely pace of the script would be deadly in lesser hands, but Henare, Blackburn, and Henwood do more than elevate it, injecting an almost Chekhovian yearning to the comings and goings of their still life. As a comedy, it boils down to a matter of taste. Generally speaking, I chuckled more than I laughed. And the only moments it ever caught me off guard were the more raunchy jokes where our heroes were painted as horny old goats. If there’s a major flaw it’s that the material is relatively lightweight and never comes close to pushing them to what they’re clearly capable of as performers. It’s also worth noting that this is actually the cast’s second time around with the play, as they all starred in the 2007 Circa Theatre production in Wellington. And you can tell, because the make it look effortless.
Behind the scenes, director Alison Quigan and her design team have created a solid vehicle for the stars, serving them and the text before anything else, just the way it should be. The entire production is tinted with a pleasant nostalgia, all the way from the exterior of the rest home to the period-appropriate French music.
While it’s difficult to say how much of the script is Stoppard’s versus Sibleyras’s, anyone looking for the former’s signature intellectualism will be disappointed. Despite being a well-constructed comedy, Heroes rarely plunges beyond the surface and, instead, chooses to kick back and relax in its quaint setting. The show doesn’t demand much of the actors or audience, and subsequently feels somewhat inessential. At the same time, there will be those who are specifically drawn to the subject material and consider the opportunity to see the three ‘Knights of New Zealand theatre’ unmissable.