Review: Ballistic at the King’s Head Theatre

Following the recent tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, global attention has been focused very much on the issue of gun control. As well it should; it’s very obvious to anyone willing to see it that when it comes to guns, America has a serious problem and needs to take action.

There is a downside, though, to the intense focus on guns in the wake of Nikolas Cruz’s deadly rampage, because it means nobody’s looking at the tragedy’s other contributing factors. And if anybody does, they’re likely to be accused (often with good reason) of trying to deflect our attention from the main issue. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” are words we’ve heard a lot over the past few weeks (and months, and years), and while we may not agree with how they’re used, that unfortunately doesn’t make them any less true.

Photo credit: Tom Packer

All of which is a very longwinded way to introduce Alex Packer’s Ballistic, a play that is decidedly not about guns. In fact, guns have been taken out of the equation almost entirely by setting the story in the UK, where our common sense laws – enacted after the Dunblane massacre in 1996 – mean if you want to shoot someone you have to put a bit more work into getting your hands on the means to do it. As a result, the play allows us, for once, to focus undistracted on some of the other issues in play when someone plots or commits this kind of crime.

Ballistic is the story – fictional, but based on true events – of a nameless teenager, who’s driven by various factors to commit an act of terrible violence. Using the rather perfect image of a game of Tetris (reflected brilliantly in Frances Roughton’s simple but effective set), where all it takes is a couple of pieces out of place to destroy everything, Mark Conway tells us his character’s story of betrayal, bullying and rejection, all set in a world where the internet and social media have the power to destroy our lives or make us famous with just the click of a button.

The point isn’t to make excuses for him; the experiences he describes happen every single day to countless other teens, 99.99% of whom don’t go on to claim them as a motive for murder. What the play wants us to examine is our own reactions to what we hear, and to consider where the story could have gone a different way if just one person had responded differently at any point. Conway and director Anna Marsland prove themselves masters of misdirection; we’re so busy laughing at the funny stories he’s telling that we don’t notice the subtle, bitter shift in Conway’s tone, or that he stopped seeing the funny side long ago, until he suddenly explodes. Another way of looking at the Tetris metaphor: if you take your eye off the game for even a second, things can go bad really quickly.

Photo credit: Tom Packer

Mark Conway gives an exceptional performance as the troubled teenager, starting out with an air of naive innocence and enthusiasm that gradually slips away, until finally we’re left with the dead-eyed killer we know all too well from the news. He addresses the audience directly throughout – but eye contact that initially comes across as cheeky and flirtatious is, just an hour later, thoroughly chilling.

We tend to think of mass killings like the one in Florida as something far away, a drama that we can watch unfold from the comfort of our own safe shores. Ballistic brings the topic right on to our doorstep and urgently asks us to confront a few harsh realities. Here in the UK, such attacks are mercifully a rarity thanks to the aforementioned common sense gun laws, but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen, or that we don’t have a role to play in preventing them – if not directly, then by addressing the culture that keeps allowing them to happen. That might not seem like much, but it could turn out to be the Tetris piece that stops everything from crashing down around us.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Alex Packer, Ballistic

In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, before taking his own life. After the attack, a lengthy document emerged that came to be known as his manifesto, in which he outlined his motives for the killings. It’s this manifesto and his online diaries that inspired Alex Packer to write Ballistic, an original story based on real events.

Ballistic is a coming of age story with a difference,” explains Alex. “It’s about a troubled young man struggling with masculinity, isolation and his place in the world. It’s about the potential dangers of what can happen if we don’t identify and help people like this.

“Before he committed the horrific mass shooting in 2014, Elliot Rodger published a 100,000-word manifesto about his life. I was shocked, uncomfortable but also very sad when I read it. He also kept a YouTube channel where he filmed himself. I wanted to understand the chain of events that can lead to a young man doing such a thing. After reading the manifesto and watching his videos, I had some answers but many more questions. I adapted, adjusted and created the play around some of the elements in his story.”

The one-man show is performed by Mark Conway, who’s been involved since the beginning. “We’ve been creating it for a year and a half,” says Alex. “I started writing it for Mark and we worked for several months on writing drafts, reading it aloud and adjusting it. The final piece in the puzzle was working with Anna Marsland, who’s been a fantastic collaborator. I feel it’s important to work on something as sensitive as this as a team in order to look at it from all angles and perspectives. As collaborators we’re always looking for the most effective way of telling this story.”

Has it been difficult to work with such chilling material? “It has and it hasn’t,” says Alex. “Because the play is a careful mix of truth and fiction, we’re able to find moments of lightness in the story too. Even though Elliot’s story is a dark one, as a writer I have to have a certain amount of empathy in my character in order to try and convey all the parts of his life sensitively. Reading about his life in his manifesto, I’m particularly curious about the near-misses – the what-ifs. He wanted friendship, wealth, love – normal things that normal people want. If key moments in his life went slightly differently would the ending have been the same?”

Alex believes the play has a message for everyone: “We see and read about characters like Elliot all the time. I think we all need to heighten our awareness and sensitivity with vulnerable and troubled young people. We need to avoid labelling them and pushing them away. Instead, we should ask the right questions and work together to prevent them going down the wrong path.”

Three years on from the events that inspired Ballistic, similar attacks continue to dominate the headlines. “I’m not sure the world has really learnt anything from Elliot Rodger’s story,” says Alex. “My catalyst for writing this play was the seemingly unending reoccurrence of violent attacks that were being reported. The media crave these dramatic stories and by giving them such prominence in newspapers and TV, I feel it’s extremely precarious. We need to ask why we broadcast these stories like this.

“The world seems to be filling up with fear, alienation and anger. The expansion of these ideas combined with lonely and troubled individuals are a toxic mix. It’s becoming easier and more comfortable to avoid real human interaction and put the blinkers on. I feel we need to notice this and be aware of its dangers.”

Above all, Alex hopes that Ballistic will prove thought-provoking. “The play isn’t about answers. I think the best theatre asks questions of its audience and keeps them thinking about it long after the curtain call.”

Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre from 27th February to 17th March.