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.
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.
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.
Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre until 17th March.
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