Out of tune

Out of tune

27 March 2018

Lily James finds she cannot sing The Events' praises

I understand the push in university drama to make your show flexible, but the artistic choices made in The Events seem purely dictated by a need to be practical, to adapt. I get it – Durham University’s drama scene is in constant expansion, with formal venues booked up months and months in advance for shows. It creates a university-wide culture of shows that operate off a single lighting rig, staged in chapels, college rooms, conference centres.

There is a slight sense though, in the rejection of ambitious lighting, thoughtful costumes, even enthusiasm from the choir at the back, that here, ideas like being "simple" and "authentic" are being given too much value. Why is The Events’ choir so lacklustre? Whats required of them in this show is a series of gutsy, funny, sad performances: a hymn version of Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”, a Norwegian coffee song, a sung-through, present-tense rerun of the moment the shooter enters the practice room. It could have been beautiful – instead it was like a not very good community choir. Cool.

The Events follows the aftermath of an act of nationalist violence, committed against this choir. It tracks the motivations, global and personal, of The Boy, and the impact of the event on Claire, a vicar. The script in and of itself is a mixed bag – at its best it’s light, considered and humanising. At its clunkiest, it contains scenes like a comparison of art and violence that ends with The Boy claiming, "I was never any good at art." This production sees this line delivered straight out to the audience, Kishore Thiagarajan-Walker holding his hands out like a scale, balancing, so, so literally, the hefty weights of these ideas. The two leads are obviously engaged, and are attacking this project with a lot of emotional investment and sincerity. Athena Tzallas as Claire is particularly convincing as she grapples with how her desires for violent justice sit with her liberal attitudes and lifestyle. She was, after all, before the event, a choir-leader with a knack for foraging, aided by her yurt-building partner. The transition from this identity to a woman who describes smearing shit into The Boy’s open wounds is tracked carefully. Thiagarajan-Walker is best when he is, well, boyish, teenage, spinning off into excitable, uncomfortable rants about Viking ecstasies, reindeer piss, Call of Duty.

But all the physical characterisation is drawn in big, broad strokes: Claire is sad, yet hardened, so sits astride her chair rolling a cigarette. The Boy is as vulnerable as he is dangerous, so his shoulders chill out around his ears most of the time. We know he’s wrong ‘un because he sits with his legs crossed and wears earbuds. It all gets a bit Punk Rock by Simon Stephens. The production doesn’t seem to trust its audience to "get it". Despite the fact that the characters are signposted at the beginning of dialogues as "The Father", "The Friend", and so on, Thiagarajan-Walker differentiates between characters via a series of completely needless accents. This isn’t his fault, and nor does he do a terrible job with them, but by the time we get to a vaguely Highland-cum-Edinburgh accent for the suicide prevention worker, it all feels a little silly. There are moments where violent action is denoted via literal mime that robs the ideas of their potency. When Claire describes smothering a child at birth, we don’t need a trembling mime of it actually happening. The issues in the script and the direction collide most uncomfortably at the ends of scenes. The script has the tendency described above to end scenes on a heavy image: a poison mushroom called Avenging Angel for example (or, Big Denoument Shroom). The production almost exclusively uses blackouts for scene changes. As a result, these big endings become easy to anticipate, and the action is reduced to a series of vignettes, ending in B-Movie set-ups: “I’ll be mother,” says Claire, as she pours The Boy a poisonous tea.

The Events’ directors, Alice Chambers and Helena Snider-Martin, would benefit from assembling a wider team, with the skills and expertise to bring the theatricality and sheer craft that this production is missing. This is thorny, imperfect story-telling: What exactly does Claire think she means when she says that colonisation might have come as relief to the Aboriginal boy in the story? Why do none of the community choir get a distinct voice, or experience? It requires direction that grapples with these ambiguities in all aspects of the production and direction, from the pronunciation of Norwegian coffee songs, to the harmonising, to whether if someone says they bought a Twix, we actually need to see them eating a Twix, and so on.

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato