Edinburgh Festival Fringe Scotsman review: The Events at Traverse Theatre (Venue 15), Nirbhaya at Assembly Hall and Quietly at Traverse Theatre, reviewed by Joyce McMillan
It’s a curious fact about modern western lives that we live surrounded by images of violence – in fiction, on the news – yet are often heavily insulated against any encounter with the reality of it; so that when people do encounter real-life violence, their first thought is often, “Is this real? Are we in a film?”
There is no playwright better placed to capture that wry, ambiguous aspect of western middle-class experience than David Greig, the long-distance playwright – ever since 1989 – of middle-class Britain’s complex, sometimes voyeuristic relationship with the suffering of a conflict-torn world; and so he comes with a huge freight of knowledge and understanding to the task of writing his much-anticipated new play The Events (★★★★) – co produced by ATC with theatres in London, Norway and Austria – about how one woman in a peaceful western community responds, when her world is blown apart by a horrific mass shooting.
The central character, Claire – played with terrific force and integrity by Nieve Macintosh – is a church minister, a pastor. The victims of the shootings are the members of a choir she has set up to bring together fragile and vulnerable people in her community; the killer is an Anders Breivik-like figure, motivated by a right-wing ideology of racial purity and anti-multiculturalism.
So when Claire’s life is derailed, after the shooting, by toxic levels of rage, horrible revenge fantasies, and an overwhelming obsession with the killer’s reasons – his madness, or evil – every aspect of her life suddenly seems fragile, ill-founded; too weak to stand against the fierce animal force of those with the will to kill, in defence of what they see as their tribe.
It’s possible to quibble with some details of Ramin Gray’s austere and thoughtful production, and of Greig’s deliberately fragmented text; its narrative momentum becomes so frail, at times, that it can be difficult to follow what’s happening, particularly since all the named characters except Claire – her partner, the killer, a psychiatrist – are all played by one actor, the infinitely flexible and intelligent Rudi Dharmalingam.
The show is lifted and held, though, by a tremendous performance from an Edinburgh community choir of 14 singers, and a beautiful, meditative, sometimes witty score by John Browne, laced with the hymns and pop songs the choir love to sing. And together, the company create a brave, thoughtful, and tonally bold first account of a terrible act, and of the forces that surround it; a sense of how it is laughable and momentous, silly and terrifying, inexplicable and laden with explanations, all in one life-changing moment.
The violence portrayed in Yael Farber’s new show Nirbhaya (★★★★), at the Assembly Hall, is in some ways understood; but its power to devastate lives remains horrifying. Last year, Farber stunned festival audiences with her astonishing South African version of Mies Julie; and this year she turns her attention to the shocking incident, in Delhi last December, in which a young female student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was lured onto a hijacked bus, and so brutally raped and assaulted by a gang of six men that she died 12 days later, after a fierce fight for life.
Farber’s purpose, in Nirbhaya, is to create a piece of reality theatre in which her remarkable company of seven Indian actors (one man, six women) draw powerfully on their own experience to demonstrate how the death of Jhoti, named Nirbhaya or “the fearless one” by the popular press, roused a generation of Indian women to name and protest against the sexual and patriarchal violence they had been taught to tolerate as inevitable.
Farber uses all her skill as a theatre-maker to create a show that is as beautiful as it is hard-hitting, evoking all the beauty and potential that is destroyed by Jyoti’s death, and all the powerful and exquisite female imagery that pervades Indian culture, even as ordinary women are violated and disfigured.
And it also, most memorably, exposes all the different beauties and strengths of the six great women who make up the cast; their stories full of tears and rage, their songs, their radiance, and above all, their shared determination that this death, among so many, will be the one that changes things, for good.
Owen McCafferty’s Quietly (★★★★), from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, takes us back to a history of violence that lies even closer to home; but like The Events, McCafferty’s play focuses on the difficulty of achieving any kind of peace and reconciliation, following a murderous attack.
The play is set in the present, in a quiet Belfast pub presided over by a laconic Polish barman; but the customer at the bar, Jimmy, was one of the victims of a devastating Loyalist bomb attack in this same pub in the 1970s, in which his father and five other men were blown to smithereens during a quiet afternoon in their local. Now Ian, the man who threw the bomb as a boy of 16, has come to meet Jimmy, to seek some kind of closure; and for an hour or so – after one swift moment of violence – they talk, while the barman watches a football match.
It’s the simplest of dramatic formulas; and yet it’s difficult to overstate the subtlety and brilliance with which McCafferty sketches in every detail of the context, the ways in which Belfast has changed and not changed, the ways in which masculinity is defined and transmitted in strong working-class communities, the unspoken love of those men for each other, the devastation of loss, the massive, unresolved anger, and the continuing wounds of a society that can still only agree to disagree.
Iach MacConghail’s beautifully detailed production is sometimes vocally underpitched for Traverse 2, always a bigger and more demanding space than it seems; but in every other respect it achieves a kind of perfection, in its simplicity, its profound understanding, its perfect structure, and its refusal of easy answers.
The Events is at Traverse
Quietly is at Traverse
Nirbhaya is at Assembly Hall
Originally published in The Scotsman