How Can I Hate Him if I Don’t Understand Him? On David Greig’s The Events

Kate Prior on David Greig's play, The Events.

In 1994, a 37-year-old Israeli fanatic shot 29 people and injured 125 others in the West Bank city of Hebron; in 2011, a 32-year-old right-wing extremist killed 77 people and injured 242 others in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, Norway; three months ago, a 21-year-old American white supremacist walked into a church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and fatally shot nine people.

From what empty hallways of the mind does such violent hatred derive? Is it possible that the savage impulse that tugs at triggers exists on a societal continuum? Do we want to make sense of it? And if we cannot, what then do we do about evil?*

Many artists have places or figures or objects they return to; motifs that hold meaning for them. For Scottish playwright David Greig, that place is Norway. Norway exists as a kind of paradise in Greig’s theatre and often features or floats around the sidelines in his plays. Glimpsed over the North Sea from Edinburgh, the Nordic model of social democracy is like a hopeful alternate political universe, with levels of trust and civic engagement among the highest in the world. So the events on the island of Utøya on July 22, 2011 – the deadliest shooting ever carried out by a single person – were all the more unfathomable, spurring a series of uncomfortable questions for Greig. In an interview in Clare Wallace’s The Theatre of David Greig, he says:

What [Anders Breivik] does by attacking Norway is he also attacks my slightly jokey but relatively serious utopia – he attacks perfection in a way. It’s the worst sort of family tragedy…when he was attacking Norwegianess - Norwegian social democratic ideology – he was attacking his family essentially. And his family…is Europe as welcoming, multicultural, open, tolerant and secular. He was attacking it…on behalf of some other Europe.

His play The Events follows a liberal priest’s search for understanding in the fallout of a horrific act. Greig is at pains to stress that the work is inspired by – and not about – the Norwegian massacre. Indeed the play’s themes of trauma, community, the shape of forgiveness and the ferocity of grief speak to any of the entries in the devastating history of mass murders and hate crimes. Fanaticism is legion. Right-wing extremist Anders Breivik was driven by the same myopic ideology as Charleston church killer Dylann Roof: the breathless paranoia that the potency of their ‘tribe’ (a word Greig twists in the mouths of both his central characters in The Events) is being diluted by outside cultures. That they – surrounded by perceived prevailing weakness – are sole purveyors of truths only they can see and with weighty performed reluctance, they must enact horrific ‘solutions’.

the play’s themes of trauma, community, the shape of forgiveness and the ferocity of grief speak to any of the entries in the devastating history of mass murders and hate crimes

In his essay How to Cure a Fanatic, Israeli writer Amos Oz suggests that fanatics share an essential, contradictory element in their nature “which is very sentimental and at the same time lacks imagination”. Sentimentality is threaded through Breivik’s manifesto: a patterned nostalgia for a Europe that never existed. Imagination opens the door to doubt, yet fanatical ideology exists in a doubtless vacuum. Isolated commitment to a heinous task derives not from an active imagination, but a grinding automation.

If a monster refuses to grant his victims their own humanity, what concern is he of ours? Far from sensationalising killers or sentimentalising the aftermath, The Events is a plumb line into the depths, exploring that which we can’t always draw from 6pm news bulletins.

“A lot of what the play is dealing with,” notes director Sophie Roberts, “touches on this tension in the world at the moment around immigration, multiculturalism, the rise of right-wing politics, Islamic fundamentalism, gun control… It’s all totally overwhelming and really easy to disconnect from when your only way of engaging with it is through the media.”

When quotidian news media numbness sets in, some places are better than others to explore these issues. “I think theatre is a good place to discuss things. That is its democratic function historically. In his address following the massacre on Utøya, the Norwegian prime minister talked about the answer to violence being democracy and I think that’s a very powerful idea.”*

Faced with devastating violence and sudden loss, the spectrum of human response runs between revenge and understanding; one offers release from pain by transference, the other by a kind of conjugation. Both may be equal in futility. Greig notes that one of the core questions that drove the development of the character Claire was, ‘What if the impulse to understand something was as destructive and full of furious energy as the impulse to revenge?’ It’s the tension between those surprising polarities that engender the play’s fragmentary yet questing drive, which as Roberts notes, doesn’t offer “a neat and tidy explanation, because how could it? That wrestle at the centre of the darkness is a very uncomfortable but very interesting place because it’s ultimately where we understand and know ourselves.”

What if the impulse to understand something was as destructive and full of furious energy as the impulse to revenge?

In Norway, people avoid calling terrorist Anders Behring Breivik by his name. They refer to him as ‘him’, or sometimes ‘ABB’, or often ‘The Boy’. “It’s almost that really primal thing of just not wanting to even give him the syllables,” Greig has noted. This avoidance of a name offered the playwright a springboard for the play’s second central figure, The Boy. The actor playing the perpetrator of the atrocity also plays every other figure Claire encounters throughout the play. It’s a choice which is emblematic of Greig’s nuanced dramaturgy; not only does this solve practical issues of stage clutter, it creates the tightly-focused Greek staging of protagonist / antagonist / chorus. Yet in Greig’s Greek tragedy, no matter how many people Claire turns to in her search, she sees the same face.

In Greig’s Greek tragedy, no matter how many people Claire turns to in her search, she sees the same face

Thus as a kind of antidote, behind her stands the multitude. Greig is a playwright whose prolificacy is matched only by his constant formal experimentation. His deep understanding of the metaphoric alchemy particular to theatre is such that each new play is an opportunity to test aesthetic edges. He also leans towards that which Clare Wallace describes as “a neo-Brechtian form of storytelling, at once reflective and engaging”. In other words, he won’t let us forget we’re in a theatre, but that won’t get in the way of a story. Here, in a characteristic choice which offers a volatile liveness to the work, each night in The Events, behind those two actors, Greig places a community choir; a whole new collection of human faces who are at once part of the play and watching it for the first time. “It’s quite a leap of faith,” Roberts comments, “and it makes us all kind of vulnerable and exposed in a way that I find really exciting.”

The chorus is of course one of the oldest elements of western theatre; in Greek tragedy its role was manifold, but its salient function was to act as the voice of the general population of Argos or Thebes or Thrace or wherever the staged story took place. By drawing on community choirs from the city in which The Events is performing, Greig ensures the chorus is at once the population of Claire’s story and the population of our home. If we’re going to step into the dark, it helps to have some familiar faces along the way. So here we are: Mangere, North Shore, Manukau, standing together in all that glorious plurality which a fanatical fear would erase.*

It is thought that sound is the last sense to depart before we die. The delicacy of the aural sense is often overlooked in our visually-obsessed world, but those vibrations transmitted though air carry with them infinitesimal codes for connection, and outside the strictures of language, music communicates across cultures. Anyone who has sang in a choir will know how good it makes you feel to create sound with other humans, no matter how wildly out of tune that might be. People who sing in choirs speak about the feelings of community and social inclusion, and the ability of group singing to ward off creeping anxieties and loneliness. Indigenous cultures know this. As do people at parties going in for another round of Ten Guitars.

Norwegians aren’t known for their outward shows of emotion, but after July 22, 2011 there were several instances when they thronged the streets, stood in unison and sang. Likewise, in June, on the Sunday following the Charleston church shooting, members of that community filled the church and stood on the street outside, joining in song.

“Our musical director Robin Kelly and I have been going out to meet the choirs over the past few months,” Roberts says. “They always sing for us when we visit and it instantly becomes the highlight of my day. I am always struck by how a choir is this really beautiful image of what is best in us.”*

I first encountered the work of David Greig 11 years ago in the Nola Miller Library at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. The play was Casanova - the only published text to emerge from Suspect Culture, the company formed by Greig and director Graham Eatough after graduating from Bristol University together in the early 90s. The play had a prologue in verse and a character called Kate. I could feel it had been wrought alongside devising actors working on the rehearsal room floor. It was writing ‘with dirty hands’ to borrow Forced Entertainment’s director Tim Etchell’s phrase. Roberts agrees, ‘I love that it feels like he is working out these big ideas in the moment with you rather than relying on a trusted dramatic formula’. I was so keen on that play Casanova that I never returned it to the library at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and therefore technically never should have graduated.*

Born in Edinburgh but raised in Nigeria, Scottish David Greig has a soft English accent. Rupturing the stereotype is somewhat appropriate: while a strong voice for Scottish independence in his politics, for Greig the notion of an easy or fixed personal national identity rankles, and it informs a great deal of his writing. One needs only to refer to their titles (San Diego, Pyrenees, Kyoto, Damascus) to note that his plays over the past 20 years span continents, navigating European identity and the traces of globalisation. Any kind of national fanaticism like Breivik’s is surely anathema to such sensibilities, and yet like any great artist whose stock in trade is honesty, he can recognise our secret desire for a comfortably fixed national identity (flag design anyone?) He describes being drawn to the story of The Events “because the part of me who likes to feel rooted worries the other part of me.”

After a series of vast, shifting geographies in his numerous plays: a fascination with non-places like shopping centres and airports, the alienation of urban supermarkets and the oblivion of mountain ranges, Greig’s note under ‘setting’ in the script for The Events is this: ‘The play takes place in a room, the sort of place in which a choir might rehearse. There is an urn’.*

In Cool Britannia, a collection of essays on British theatre of the 90s, Greig contributed a piece entitled, ‘Rough Theatre’. In it he writes, “Theatre doesn’t change the world. But if the battlefield is the imagination, then the theatre is a very appropriate weapon in the armoury of resistance.”

If each art form is held in that arsenal, what is theatre’s speciality? Surely it’s that it allows for an experiment in real time; amongst certain conditions a figure is placed in front of us, and through them we can ask our questions of ‘what if?’ If contingency is territory, then though them we gain ground.

For too many, grief, anxiety and trauma are inescapable burdens. Perhaps if we attempt to imagine possibilities - to wrestle with questions like that which The Events unearths - we could help lighten the collective load.

Silo Theatre's The Events runs
3 - 26 September
Book tickets here The Pantograph Punch are also proud to present
a free panel discussion on the questions raised by the play:

Join our panel of experts in a discussion about Silo Theatre’s The Events and the questions it raises: How can a person enact such devastating violence, and what is our own capacity for this kind of transgression? What do we do when this happens: How do we respond? How do we forgive? How do we move on? And what are the hard questions we aren't asking?

This is a free event (bookings are essential), but we would like to encourage donations to Victim Support, Pillars and PARS. There will also be an opportunity for you to donate on the night.


Dr Ian Lambie is a clinical psychologist who has worked with youth offenders for the past 20 years. He specialises in adolescents who sexually offend, children who deliberately light fires and children displaying violent and antisocial behaviour.

At 18, Dr Paul Wood was a high-school dropout in prison for killing his drug dealer. He is now a coach and consultant who uses his knowledge and experience to assist individuals and organisations achieve their developmental goals.

Dr Tracey McIntosh (Tūhoe) teaches into the sociology and criminology programme at the University of Auckland. She teaches in the area of death and dying, incarceration and the interface of Indigenous peoples and the criminal justice system. Her recent research focuses on incarceration (particularly of indigenous peoples), inequality and justice.

Judge Carolyn Henwood spent 22 years as a Youth Court Judge and in 2004 she established the Henwood Trust, whose mission is to develop effective strategies for young offenders.Book your tickets here

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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