Friday 8 August 2008

"There is no decent place to stand in a massacre"

So sings Leonard Cohen in his song The Captain. The line particularly strikes me as I think of a way to open this review of Syracuse University Drama Department's production of Columbinus at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Venue 40. Before I go further, I should probably declare an interest: namely that I am also one of the venue managers.

As might be expected from the title, the play recreates the events of 20th April 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 of their fellow Columbine High School students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. Rather than over-dramatising, it is based on interview transcripts with survivors. This initially gives it a rather stilted feel, but makes the ensuing events more harrowing.

The design is very sparse, the set consisting of just six chairs. A projector displays the title of various scenes on the rear wall. The play opens with a scene of assorted teenagers going through their morning routines, reminiscent of the staging of 1984 at this venue from Edward's Theatre Company two years ago, which featured trance-like choreography of workers commuting.

We then see the kids, first introduced and described by their peers, then by themselves, fascinating for the differences that are revealed. The production uses the striking device of red lighting for each of the many times a scene is paused so we can hear the person's inner monologue.

The massacre itself is relayed in the starkest terms, from 911 calls played back and accompanied by CCTV images. The desperation in the voices is harrowing. The action then shifts to the library. Harris and Klebold prowl around the room while the other students cower beneath the tables. The words here all appear to be transcripts from interviews, this gives them a clinical feel which makes them all the more troubling. In a particularly effective decision no sound effects are used for the bullets save for the killers clapping; this becomes particularly troubling when one student is shot repeatedly. Then there is the sheer brutality of their treatment of an african-american student. I'm not sure how the actors kept going, as it was all I could do to keep quiet.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and you soon forget that several of the women in this female heavy cast are playing men. Joshua Finn and David Synder are particularly effective as the killers.

It's been said in some reviews that the play doesn't explain the events, but I would disagree. We see the alienation of these two people, and the completely inadequate intervention of authority figures at so many points along the road. It is telling at the end when we that 15 trees were planted in memorial, and two were later cut down by the relatives. When the names of the victims are display Klebold and Harris are absent and it seems clear that the community has yet to come fully to terms with the tragedy.

One of the reactions from the right after the similar Virginia Tech shooting was that the guns weren't to blame. As someone who is in favour of gun control I find this a troubling argument. And yet this play speaks to the fact that it wasn't guns that drove this, it was something deeper and altogether harder to address, as shown by a grotesque moment when Klebold describes his wish to kill someone with a knife.

It is a deeply upsetting and troubling experience, but one well worth experiencing. Director Joseph Whelen and his students are to be commended.

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