Earlier this year, after the tragic events in Parkland, Florida, school shootings became perhaps the most intense site of struggle in the whole political landscape of Donald Trump’s America; yet it’s rare to come across any piece of writing that takes us so deeply into the interaction between humans and firearms as the Chicago writer Martin Zimmerman’s superb 2017 monologue On The Exhale, which receives its European premiere at the Traverse this month.
On The Exhale, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) ****
Chase Scenes, Canada Hub @ King’s Hall (Venue 73) ***
The show’s sole character is a female academic, specialising in women’s studies, who is already disturbed by the increasing prevalence of little gun-shaped signs around campus, asking people not to carry concealed weapons. She thinks they may give some of her more hostile male students ideas; but when the tide of gun violence in schools does wash up on her doorstep, the devastating truth that it’s not she who is the victim, but her little son.
Instead of recoiling from America’s gun culture, though, she finds that her terrible, hallucinatory grief sends her searching for a closer relationship with the weapon that killed her child; she buys an assault rifle, learns to shoot, and learns that like a child, a gun is almost a living presence, with its own demands and energy.
In Polly Frame’s magnificent performance, directed by Christopher Haydon for London companies China Plate and Audible, her story drives and tightens with riveting intensity towards a final confrontation that has us almost literally holding our breaths, before the final exhale.
And if there is a last glimmer of hope, it lies in the memory of love; and in the knowledge that to defeat a powerful and malign force, you have first to know it, and fully understand the energy that drives it.
If On The Exhale is the story of a woman trying to regain control after a shocking experience of violence, then Winnipeg-based artist Ming Hon’s Chase Scenes is a witty attempt to take charge of the images of fleeing and terrified women that are such a troubling staple feature of western screen culture. Over 60 minutes, the three women on stage take it in turns to enact 60 short scenes of terror, pursuit, and nightmare, while the other two capture the scenes in instant camera images projected on to a large screen, alongside video images which add more cinematic elements to the same incidents.
Chase Scenes is a stylish and enjoyable hour of theatre, performed with skill and feeling by Ming Hon with Alexandra Elliott and Hilary Anne Crist. Yet in the end, it somehow seems too light-hearted in tone for a show on such a serious subject; and its lack of any narrative arc prevents it, in the end, from achieving any new insight.
• On the Exhale until 26 August, 3:45pm; Chase Scenes until 26 August, 2:25pm.