Piccolo Theatre and The Pleasance bring new work Screen 9 to the stage, a powerful depiction of the devastating mass shooting which took place in Aurora Colorado on July 20th 2012 at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. With a bold creativity in regards to its staging and the sensitive nature in which writer-director Kate Barton handles the tragedy and its aftermath, Screen 9 is a gut-punching examination into the heartbreak caused by gun crimes.
Screen 9 examines the build up to these tragic events of 2012, centring on four victims attending the screening. Matriarch Mary (Hannah Schunk-Hockings), trainee paramedic Alex (David Austin-Barnes), Katy (Sabrina Wu) who attends with her boyfriend, and comic book fan Jonny (George Rexstrew) make up the ensemble of characters each shaken by the attack. Exploring the build-up, the actual shooting and the rippling damage of its aftermath, Screen 9 sets out to pay tribute to the community that rebuilt itself after tragedy.
There is a necessary sensitivity required in exploring an event such as this with real victims and survivors, the latter living with this attack to this day. Barton’s refusal to have characters acknowledge the attacker in any way – from name to even physical description – and solely focus on the story of the innocent by rooting this entirely on these four well-carved protagonists and their experiences avoids fetishizing the perpetrator. With links to Survivors Empowered, a US-based charity dedicated to providing support, free therapy and a soft place to land for survivors of gun violence, it is clear that Piccolo Theatre have done their homework on how to approach this subject with respect whilst also remaining thought-provoking and challenging.
Upon entering, ushers hand out popcorn while the stage is set with a red velvet barrier at both sides, and a large screen dominating the centre. The Lomond Theatre at the EICC has been transformed into a cinema screen, with the cast utilising the empty seats around to deliver their description of the shooting whilst haze pumps in from behind the cinema screen. It’s unsettling but transformative, capturing the eerie semblance of a theatre whilst immersing us in the events.
Prior to this, Screen 9 sees the cast of characters share their excitement for the release of the superhero epic with an infectious gusto. Capturing a picture of wholesome small town USA getting a slice of Hollywood with the arrival of the Batman picture, there is an undercurrent of unease as the audience are all too aware of the narrative trajectory Screen 9 will take. The cast utilise the stage, before sitting amongst the audience to describe the shooting – not in an overblown melodramatic fashion, but in an understated, chillingly calm manner capturing the painful emotions and traumatising imagery of the attack.
Using the final act to explore how these survivors lives have changed as a result of the attack, Screen 9 also delves into a debate about gun laws in the USA, with each of the four characters having a different opinion on the matter. Interactions between the four are initially light, largely taking place in the last act – with each performer having their own moment to shine delivering their respective account. There is a natural energy and convincing sense of being bonded by tragedy in the scenes where they do interact with one another.
Celebrating the concept of survival, Screen 9 is a thought-provoking piece ripe with a narrative tension, raw emotion and admirable sensitivity.