Columbine, Columbine High School Massacre, Columbine Shootings, Death, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, Evil, Guns, Gus Van Sant, Jamie Biddle, John Christian-Bateman, Joseph Horton, Kieran Hennigan, Klebold and Harris, Morality, Saviour Theatre Company, Teenager, Theatre Review
To many of my generation the word “Columbine” not only denotes the high school massacre which put the Colorado town of the same name on the map in 1999, but a dark allure – which is neither completely grounded in the mainstream nor in any subculture – but which expresses a certain satisfaction at the aesthetic of the massacre. Two young people had imposed their will over the authority, conformity, and banality of the suburbs. They were quite deranged – they would have shot you and I dead and then smirked over our corpses – but just as Iago is the most sympathetic character in Othello, Klebold and Harris are inescapably compelling figures because they had taken flight like angels from our burdensome humanity.
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) attempted to deglamorise the high school massacre, by portraying its initiators as blank and petty, and exacting a suitable revenge by smearing the macho Klebold and Harris as gay. Yet in Joseph Horton’s play “At the Broken Places,” which is currently residing at C Central, the killers are depicted as triumphant renegades from morality, whose diaries are apparently published and whose feats are replicated on stage, but Horton evokes all of this with the same irony that Nathaniel Hawthorne used to chip away at statues of the Founding Fathers and the heroes of Lovewell’s Pond. Twenty years after a Columbine-style shooting at Sierra High, the school authorities plan to stage a play representing the killings on the very spot where they had taken place. Yet the survivors of the massacre cannot agree over what happened, or what should be in the play, and prospective lawsuits from the conflicting parties begin to threaten the production.
There is at first a lot of vicious humour to this show, but it gradually pulls back these dogs in favour of finer ironies. The Saviour Theatre Company are a modest and faintly secretive organisation – with the amateurish touch of a fake newspaper article for a programme, it initially looks as if we are in the hands of the American High School Festival Theatre, but this is actually a cast of professional English actors. There is not a weak link in the troupe, but Jamie Biddle is particularly good as an over-enthusiastic student researcher. The writer Joseph Horton is apparently a native of Colorado, but he has no other productions to his name.
The ghosts of Sierra have been laid to rest – the present generation of students arrived at the school long after the massacre – and there is no apparent incentive to stage this play other than the stated one of a school rebranding exercise. Yet the school principal seems to sense that the killers affirmed the failure of her civilisation, and her inadequacy as an educator. She did not resign her post after the massacre – probably because this would have handed the killers another victory – but she has yet to shut the stable door after the horses have bolted, in being unable to find an explanation for their evil. The students end up as cheerfully detached from their parents’ suffering as from anything in any history lesson, but one of the killers is soon looming ominously behind the cast like the Statue of Liberty – an everyman figure, he is represented by each of the students in turn. We can see and feel all too obviously why the killers were evil, but the play cannot exorcise the ghosts whom it has raised, and they remain heroes.