Screen 9

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10/08/21

Pleasance, EICC, Lomond, Edinburgh

As we enter the venue we’re offered a bag of freshly-made popcorn – and, as we take our seats, the appetising aroma of the stuff is all-pervading. The only thing to alert is to the fact that we’re not just here to watch a movie is a series of trigger warnings unfolding on the screen in front of us…

In July 2012, in a movie theatre in Boulder Colorado, during a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, a teenage assailant entered the auditorium armed with assault weapons and started firing. In a matter of minutes, he had killed twelve people, while seventy others were injured, fifty eight of them by gunfire. He later pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and is now serving twelve life sentences in prison.

Screen 9 is a powerful and compelling slice of verbatim theatre, based on the real life testimonies of four survivors. To say that it’s harrowing may be understating things somewhat.

Katy (Sabrina Wu) was with her boyfriend that night and he died protecting her. Mary (Hannah Shunk-Hoffing) was seriously wounded and lost one of her sons. Alex (David Austin-Barnes) saw a close friend murdered. but used his medical training to help the wounded. And Jonny (Alex Rextrew) was ‘lucky’ – he and his girlfriend escaped any physical injury, though the psychological effects of the night would stay with him forever. As the four tell their stories, I am drawn into the edgy uncertainty of their situation, particularly when the performers move to seats amongst the audience to give their accounts from somewhere behind me, their overlapping dialogue becoming ever more confused. As they speak, the screen dissolves into a series of uncertain blurred images and a thick haze fills the room. This is not for the faint-hearted.

Obviously, I’m glad I wasn’t at that fateful screening, but this uncanny retelling brings home some of the horror of the situation – and, when, during a break, the characters are drawn to discussing the subject of gun control, it’s fascinating to note that they all have different points of view. Katy wants firearms to be banned outright, but Jonny is still arguing for the right to bear arms, pointing out that if he’d had a weapon that night, he might have been able to save people’s lives. The intent of this is clear. Gun control is a complicated issue and the fact that the survivors of such a horrifying event are still able to have a rational and understanding conversation about it demonstrates the complexity of the problem. This is a subject that still needs to be fully explored.

Piccolo Theatre have created something very special here and Kate Barton’s direction takes an audience to places it may not want to go. While this is nobody’s idea of a fun night out at the Fringe, it’s nonetheless an enervating and thought-provoking theatrical experience, not to be missed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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