Most people remember where they were when they heard the news of the Utøya shootings. Anders Breivik’s crimes, in July 2011, were the worst peacetime massacre Norway had ever seen. Seventy-seven were killed, many of them teenagers, and over the weeks that followed the resounding question was ‘why?’.
It’s a question that ripples out through David Greig’s play, which explores a similar atrocity and its aftermath. While not directly based on Utøya, the sheer incomprehensibility is familiar: a right-wing extremist opens fire on a community choir, leaving the survivors to pick up the pieces. Here, the titular ‘events’ are revisited in fragmented form, as priest and choir leader Claire (Derbhle Crotty) struggles to find some answers.
The Events premiered last year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and enjoyed a sell-out run in London before touring around the country. Now returning to the Young Vic, the drama unfolds against the pared-back setting of the small Maria stage. It’s an ideal backdrop for a play that prefers words to action: the story is relayed not through visuals, but through tightly-woven language which compels the audience to engage.
In fact, the play makes do with just two actors. Alongside Crotty’s dauntless, if deeply rattled, Claire, the astonishing Clifford Samuel flits between a dozen or so characters. Credited in the programme simply as ‘The Boy’, he plays not just the enigmatic gunman but also Claire’s female partner, a far-right politician, an unpopular schoolboy and a fox.
As Samuel told the Lambeth Weekender: “The Boy represents the reality in the play but also the different facets of Claire’s mind. It’s almost a conversation Claire’s having with herself.”
Claire, of course, wants to shed some light on the shooting. At Breivik’s trial, a key point of contention was whether he was criminally insane. Here the ‘bad or mad’ motif plays out in full force, with Claire herself expressing the idea that The Boy is simply evil. Other characters, or voices in her head, proffer different views.
Is The Boy ‘a point on the continuum of contemporary masculinity’? Is he ‘the way things are going’? ‘The end of civilisation’? ‘A void’? Ultimately, the play’s arc points not towards analysis but forgiveness, with the suggestion that reasoning has its limits in the presence of such brutality.
Special credit must go to the community choir that joined the actors on stage. A different group performs every night, turning their hand variously to soaring hymns, a shamanic ceremony, and an operatic version of Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers.
“The idea was as audience members you’re seeing your reflection onstage,” Samuel explained. “They’re like a Greek chorus, but also a front row audience: they’ve got the best seats in the play!”
The Events is not a production which hands you its goodies on a plate. It bleeds in and out of fantasy and reality and forces you to work for its rewards. These rewards, however, are substantial: Greig’s script, under Ramin Gray’s direction, positively zings with ideas. It is sharp, it is thoughtful, it is darkly funny and at many points it is profound. Over the course of 90 terse minutes, there is zero scope to get bored.
This preview appears in the Lambeth Weekender.