All Things Entertaining and Cultural
David Grieg takes two dramatic occurrences and examines them from two distinct perspectives in his play, “The Events,” which has some stirring moments and some astute historical and cultural insights but, as seen by in a production by Britain’s Actors Touring Company at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center, is ponderously overthought and a tad tedious in spite of its brevity, 75 minutes (that felt longer).
For all director Ramin Gray’s production has going for it, including masterful portrayals by Derbhle Crotty as a priest who leads a choir in a remote Australian coastal village and Clifford Samuel, as a troubled young man who leads a hardscrabble existence, “The Events” does not compel. It scenes of real portent are isolated and often unconnected. Greig’s writing is self-consciously lecturing, as he seems to want to lay blame for the chaos in the world on the people who expanded and colonized it. There is, of course, a palpable measure of truth and value in that supposition, but Grieg is of the contemporary cut-and-dried school that deals in the 21st century’s politically popular absolutes instead of taking into account previous centuries of perspective and tradeoff. The stories, the events, that Crotty’s and Samuel’s characters live through and represent, are thought-provoking and have some power, but they don’t add up to what Greig purports, that violence against Western civilization today is a direct and delayed response to the European occupation of territory native populations once governed.
Many today take a simplistic view of the plain historical fact that land was secured and colonized without the by your leave of the people who lived there originally. Greig prefers this simplicity even as he makes Crotty’s character, Claire, an outsider to the Australian shores she inhabits, sympathetic. The problem in “The Events” is he doesn’t argue his ideas engrossingly to the point they entertain or make an immediate impact, whether you agree with Greig or are in opposition to his certainty his point of view is the only conclusion to which a thinking person can come. In spite of Crotty’s wonderful effort, and the excellent participation of the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Chamber Singers, who with little rehearsal do a fine job providing Claire’ s choir and illustrating the binding, universal quality of music, Gray’s production drags and makes you long for the few dramatic high points when direct action is taken or direct statements are made or the music the students from Haverford-Bryn Mawr so skillfully reigns.
I was more often bored by “The Events” than fascinated by it or drawn in by the philosophy of its theme, and I’m one who enjoys a good, intellectual or cultural tussle. I equate the pace and vivacity of the show to the several scenes in which Claire arranges or stacks chairs for the choir to occupy. I kept watching the singers and hoped I would pick up a sign they were about to leaven Greig with a dose of Bach or even some contemporarily rhythmic songs. As you’ll see, I found a lot to think about during and after watching “The Events,” but my cogitations often were my way of entertaining myself when I found the content on stage unengaging and was working to crystalize all Greig was suggesting. My exercise was intellectual and philosophical, not theatrical, and therein lies a rub.
Greig’s event Number One is seminal and resonates beyond the Australian shore where it is set.
A boy who appears to be a late teenager is on a cliff watching the harbor that adjoins his village. He introduces himself as an Aborigine and mentions he is armed with a bow and arrows. Approaching the harbor is something mystical, something the lad has never seen and that seems unworldly to him. Vessels with large triangular and trapezoidal white objects hoisted on sturdy polls are heading towards him.
The boy is unsure if what we would know of as ships are a mirage or a reality. He doesn’t know if he is seeing something divine or something dangerous. We know what he concludes when he ends his rather involving monologue with the startling declaration that if he knew, when he saw the ships from his mountain perch, what he knows now that the fleet has landed and his village is subjugated to foreign adventurers, he would have drawn his bow and shot arrow after arrow until he had killed the entire crew of the usurping boats.
Hints are this boy is an ancestor of Samuel’s character, not given a name but called simply “Boy,” and who in modern times, is a resident of his family’s ancestral town.
Also there is Claire, who enjoys the rustic isolation of the place, on the sea but far from the hubbub of Sydney, Melbourne, or other seaside metropoli.
Claire lives peacefully and comfortably with her partner, Lynn, in a cottage adjacent to the church where she leads the choir. She enjoys picking blueberries and milling grain to make her and Lynn’s repast and is happy to be distant from complicated urban existence. Her biggest problem may be the young boy who comes around and makes mischief to get attention rather than joining the choir or helping Claire or Lynn with the myriad chores living in a fairly primitive area requires. Even mopping a floor, setting out and putting away chairs, or brewing and serving pots of hot tea would be a great act of assistance Claire would undoubtedly reward. She is, by nature, a generous soul, with her time and counsel as with her tea and biscuits. Claire is clearly a good soul. And a witty one. She can unreel a good line or two, and Crotty knows how to maximize every one.
Her openness leads to the second event. The boy arrives one day at Claire and Lynn’s cottage. They are mildly busy, but they stop to note him.
The boy is carrying a gun. His motive is violence, and his intention is to cause pain. He is going to murder one of the women but leave the other to survive and mourn her lover. He has the temerity, in the feverish desperation Samuel supplies, to ask the women which chooses to die. He makes it clear one will be killed and the other left to suffer the loss. We have heard about this episode several times before we see it, and we know he kills Lynn. Claire’s presence alone would tell us that. When we meet her, she is carrying on with her pastoral duties and her now-spoiled rustic life.
Here is where intellectual leaps are needed to bridge what Greig presents. From a symbolic point of view, the boy is a native taking retaliative action against members of a society that he believes destroyed the purity of his native spot on Earth.
Claire and Lynn represent the Westerner. Their church does. Claire’s music does. So do her tea and biscuits. They are Britain brought to Australia and imposed there.
The boy does not have to partake of these things. No one forces him. He doesn’t seen to have been overly affected by colonization and acculturation that occurred two centuries before his birth. Greig refers to the convict ships that brought offenders to Australia, designed by England as a prison colony, where a criminal class could serve sentences and then be freed to populate this new-found continent and civilize themselves and the native Aborigines.
The boy also seems to have no gripe against Claire or Lynn. Claire banters with him, but she is never mean or abusive. The women seem easy targets for someone who Greig suggests wants to make a statement, but will be doing something useless by killing one of two harmless woman, who wish him no ill and who only racially represent the culture he may think dominated land that was his ancestors’.
Lynn’s death is a mystery, not about who perpetrated it — We will see that. — but about why she was chosen from all the people in the village the boy could have murdered. Greig suggests acts of violence against European or American people by natives of lands they occupied are triggered by hard and long-felt resentment for the initial enfranchisement of their homes.
One thing that happens because Claire is the witness and survivor of Lynn’s murder is she must deal with it as suits her widow’s need for justice or, to use a word I usually find odious and avoid, closure.
But Claire is a gentle soul, a cleric with a true pastoral bent, and a musician who appreciates and shares the magnificent sounds of composers spanning 400 years. What recourse might she take?
You can see all there is to consider here.
Greig makes all more complex with a third event, Claire’s meeting of the boy once he is apprehended and in prison for life.
This, one of the last scenes in “The Events,” is the most dramatic even if one of the more quiet. We know that Claire, a naturalist, who knows all of the properties of grains, nuts, berries, roots, and vegetables, has made a decision.
The drama is whether she will carry out her intention.
It would spoil Greig’s excellent ending to tell you what she contemplates and whether she follows through with it.
Suffice it to say I think Greig has Claire make the right choice, mainly because it is consistent with her character. Any choice she makes will be equally shocking, so “The Events” loses no drama Claire she makes up her mind. Crotty, topnotch from the beginning, aids in making this last scene poignant.
Derbhle Crotty, a favorite of mine for a long time, does all she can to animate “The Events” as Claire. Less dramatic moments, and the mundane chair maneuvering and serving of tea, prevent her from making Greig’s play riveting, or even fluid in mood and nature, but when Claire has something to say, or an act that must be carried out, Crotty endows her with great depth and sense of purpose.
Clifford Samuel is properly waiflike and distant as the boy who is naïve and articulate when he overcomes his fear or bashfulness and expresses himself. Samuel often gives his character great dignity.
The students of Haverford and Bryn Mawr, dressed in their everyday street clothes, were remarkable considering they were not shown the script and had a brief rehearsal period, mainly spent learning blocking and going through about 15 minutes of choral passages.
The ensemble sounded superb. Crotty and Samuel were a great help in marshalling them to where they needed to be and in coaching about what happens next. Some of the singers also had passages to read, and they did a generally fine job, even the guy who giggled through his recitation. (My empathy. It sounds funny now, considering the hundreds of live television shows, radio programs, and speaking appearances I’ve done, but I used to crack up constantly until I learned a failproof composure trick. So don’t let a giggle or two throw you.)
A different choral group appears in “The Events” each night. Coming up are the Healing Presence Choir, the Rutgers University Singers, Philomusica, and the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir.
“The Events” runs through Sunday, October 19 in the Harold Prince Theatre of The Annenberg Center, on the University of Pennsylvania campus at 37th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $20 and can be obtained bu calling 215-898-3900 or by visiting www.annenbergcenter.org.