From Tribe to Chorus: David Greig’s The Events

by Paola Botham

in National Conference

Post image for From Tribe to Chorus: David Greig’s The Events

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

“Every act of theatre revolves around a transaction between two communities: the performers onstage and the improvised community that constitute what we call an audience,” writes Ramin Gray in his director’s note for The Events. Yet this play, commissioned by Gray’s Actors Touring Company (London) and Drammatikkenshus (Oslo) and written by Scottish dramatist David Greig, is a rather unusual act of theatre. It is a piece that interrogates the notion of community through dramatic fiction while involving a non-fictional community on stage: a local choir, different for every single performance (more than a hundred in total). In a ‘Choir Pack’ especially designed for prospective participants, Gray states: “the story weaves around you, often you will represent the community and act as spectators but sometimes you will act like a Greek chorus and of course, at other times you will sing: songs dear to your hearts and songs that we will write for you” (ATC 2). The Events opened in August 2013 at the Traverse Theatre, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and is still touring Britain. Co-produced by the Young Vic (UK), Brageteatret (Norway) and Schauspielhaus Wien (Austria), it was seen in all three countries this spring. My own brief response to the play in terms of community and identity stems from a November performance of the show at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, plus some discussions held during the David Greig Festival at the University of Lincoln in March 2014.

As already indicated, The Events is a work of fiction, although informed by research conducted in Norway in the aftermath of the killing of 77 people by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.[1] During their visit to the country, Greig and Gray actually saw a choir and the future shape of the piece presented itself: “[I]t seemed like such a perfect image of the best in being human. In the play, what happens to them becomes the motor for the story. A choir is a group that can include or exclude you” (Greig qtd. in Herald Scotland). Only two professional actors and one musician share the stage with the singers. In the original tour, Neve McIntosh played Claire, a priest who survives the mass shooting that has decimated her multicultural community choir and desperately tries to make sense of this ‘event’. Rudi Dharmalingam played The Boy, who is the perpetrator but also morphs into all other characters, none of whom can give Claire a clear justification: The Boy’s father, his acquaintance from school, the leader of a far-right party, Claire’s therapist and even her partner Catriona. The result of these multiple roles is an acute version of Brechtian distancing techniques that precludes sensationalism. In the words of one Fringe reviewer, Dharmalingam “never succumbs to ‘acting’ and instead just speaks the lines with clarity and conviction, allowing us to consider the ideas without being swayed by his emotion” (Hutton). At the same time, as Talya Kingston observes in Theatre Journal, The Boy’s ubiquity suggests that “no matter to whom Claire looks to for explanation or comfort, she only and always sees the same face” (266).

The constant doubling of The Boy (always ‘The Boy’ in the written text, which does not specify the other characters ‘he’ plays) has a further, more subtle effect. It somehow highlights the instability of identity, making impossible the ontological reading of Evil that Claire attempts at some point in her argument with Catriona (still ‘The Boy’):

The Boy Evil?

Claire Yes.

Evil is in the world, Catriona.

He brought it.

If I can find its cause and lay it to rest, I’ll sleep.

Do you understand?

The Boy What if you can’t find it, Claire?

What if bad things just happen? (39)

At a collective level, a necessary questioning of the notion of identity underpins the ambivalence of community itself which, like Greig’s metonymical choir, can include or exclude, but only precariously. According to Stuart Hall’s seminal formulation,

 [t]hroughout their careers, identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside’, abjected. Every identity has at its ‘margin’, an excess, something more. The unity, the internal homogeneity, which the term identity treats as foundational is not a natural, but a constructed form of closure, every identity naming as its necessary, even if silenced and unspoken other, that which it ‘lacks’. (5)

When Claire finally confronts The Boy in prison, the closest she gets to an answer from him is “I think I just got a bit obsessed with aborigines” (64). Breivik infamously linked the struggle for Aboriginal land in Australia with the supposed entitlement of ‘indigenous’ populations in Europe. The play builds on this connection by having The Boy, in the first scene, imagining “An aboriginal boy [...] standing on the rocks of the Illawarra River just at the very moment three ships from England come sailing up the long grey waters of the cove”. As the ships bring “class and religion and disease and a multitude of other instruments of objectification and violence”, the boy –as conjured up by ‘The Boy’, who in Dharmalingam’s performance is played against the white stereotype– would be well advised to “Kill them. Kill them all” (11-12). The analogy can serve to legitimise The Boy’s grievances inasmuch as the illusion of an ‘indigenous’ identity can be maintained, but Claire destroys it towards the end of the play by producing an alternative version of the imagined boy:

Isn’t it possible, isn’t it just possible that –after sixty thousand years of entirely unchanged culture– isn’t it just possible that if you asked the aboriginal boy how he felt about those ships in that moment he might say –in aboriginal language of course– something like ‘Thank fuck! Thank fuck something interesting has finally happened round here.’
That’s possible, isn’t it? (65-66)

Another semantic difference between The Boy and Claire concerns the use of the word ‘tribe’, which the former deploys in that first scene and Claire also finds later in “A link in a comment on a page about the trial”, claiming that “Blood must be shed in defence of the tribe” (21). As an atavistic version of community, ‘tribe’ is made of apparently fixed identity markers –bonds of blood and tradition– yet Claire presents her own interpretation when she invites The Boy to the choir in the first sequence: “Everyone’s welcome here. [...] We’re all a big crazy tribe here” (12). The Boy’s murderous act temporarily destroys the possibility of an ‘open’ tribe, but Claire concludes the play with the same choice of words (68), just before the final tune. It can be argued that the role assigned to the choir within the performance itself sketches a trajectory from close to open. The show begins with their “own song”, which “should offer a strong sense of [the] choir’s identity –a real signature tune”, but gradually they acquire more general functions: “[t]hey fulfil the role of the Choir in the narrative, represent the community in which the play takes place, and act as Greek Chorus” (ATC 5). As Kingston puts it, “having a choir of nonactors onstage [...] was both the best example of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt that I have experienced and the purest example of an onstage chorus as the representation of a collective of citizens” (266).

Kingston remarks are pertinent in order to examine the political implications of Greig’s play and its innovative approach to communities on and off the stage. While Greig is comfortable acknowledging the influence of Brecht, he has had an uneasy relationship with the post-1968 generation of political playwrights, wanting “to get away from theatre that proposed dialectical solutions in the old-left wing tradition” (“Rough Theatre” 212). Drawing instead on the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno (a resolute critic of Brecht), Greig created his own manifesto for Rough Theatre, “a very tentative proposal for a new model of political theatre which might offer the possibility of resistance in the new conditions of power in the early twenty-first century” (211). In The Events, the Adornian spirit is present in the paradoxical attitude to the prospect of understanding. Claire’s compulsion to find reasons is constantly undercut by the sense (articulated by The Boy/Catriona above) that bad things may just happen. As Hutton claims, this may well be a “a lyrical, knotty play which, through trying to comprehend, suggests that comprehension is impossible”, although in my opinion Lyn Gardner’s summary of The Events is closer to the mark: “Its beauty was that it was –like Claire herself– full of doubt and honesty, about its own function, its own fragmentary aesthetic, about what we mean by society, and our flailing helplessness in the face of unexpected violence”. In other words, true to Brechtian and ‘rough’ style, in its search for understanding about the limits of community the play is not fated but unfinished. And the audience as community has been invited to add their voices to the choir.

Dr. Paola Botham (née Sotomayor) is a Chilean academic based in the United Kingdom. She lectures in English and Drama at Birmingham City University and the Birmingham School of Acting. Her main research interests are modern and contemporary British theatre –with an emphasis on political and documentary forms–, Hispanic drama and critical theory. She holds degrees in Journalism and Aesthetics (Universidad Católica de Chile), an MA in British Theatre Studies (Worcester, UK) and a PhD in Drama & Performance (Coventry, UK). Publications include chapter contributions to the series Decades of Modern British Playwriting (on Caryl Churchill) and Themes in Theatre (on the tribunal play), as well as articles in JCDE: Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, Contemporary Theatre Review and the Chilean periodicals Revista Chilena de Literatura and Cátedra de Artes. She is co-convenor of the Political Performances Working Group at the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR).

Reference List
ATC (Actors Touring Company). “The Events by David Greig Choir Pack”, 2013.
Gardner, Lyn. “Best Theatre of 2013, No 1: The Events”. Guardian, 31 December 2013.
Gray, Ramin. “Director’s Note”. The Events by David Greig. London: Faber and Faber, 2013. n. pag.
Greig, David. The Events. London: Faber and Faber, 2013.
“Rough Theatre”. Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s. Eds. D’Monté, Rebecca and Graham Saunders. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 208-221.
Hall, Stuart. “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?” Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Hall, Stuart and Paul du Gay. London: Sage, 1996. 1-17.
Herald Scotland. “Author David Greig and Director Ramin Gray Discuss a New Play which Deals with the Aftermath of an Atrocity”, 16 July 2013. 
Hutton, Dan. “Edinburgh Fringe Review: The Events”. A Younger Theatre, 4 August 2013.<>
Kingston, Talya. “Ciara by David Harrower and The Events by David Greig (Review)”. Theatre Journal 66.2 (2014): 264-266.

[1] After a newspaper headline misrepresented his intentions during the creative process, Greig posted a strong clarification on his website: “My play [...] is NOT as musical. It is NOT about Anders Breivik. The Events is a project which uses a fictional story to explore how communities and individuals heal after traumatic violence”.