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Review: On the Exhale (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival)

Christopher Haydon directs Martin Zimmerman's monologue about school shootings in America

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
On the Exhale
© Sid Scott

The continued killing of American schoolchildren by men with guns has prompted many artistic responses. This monologue, by the American playwright Martin Zimmerman, was written in direct response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 20 children aged between six and seven years-old and six teachers were killed by 20 year-old Adam Lanza.

Since then, there have been 130 recorded firearms incidents in US schools and campuses. With horrible emphasis, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead in February this year, happened at the same time as this production was going into rehearsal.

So there's no doubting the urgency of a continued examination of the roots of such violence – or the originality of Zimmerman's approach, which takes the testimony of an unnamed single mother whose much loved son Michael becomes a shooter's victim. She is an educator herself and the play opens with her description of a dream in which she imagines one of her male pupils, full of entitlement, shooting her.

But when her son dies, it is not the gunman's motivation that overwhelms her; in her grief, she becomes seduced and fascinated by the assault rifle he used, finding that when she holds and fires a similar gun, her son appears to her. Her obsession with the weapon itself, takes her in unexpected and frightening directions and leads her to a terrifying conclusion. "To shoot a weapon is to merge yourself completely with the needs of another being…It is an act not unlike parenting".

It's an interesting notion and under the sleek direction of Christopher Haydon, it is powerfully performed by Polly Frame, standing amid a tangle of florescent light tubes (design by Frankie Bradshaw), that pulse and glow when she exhales, finding the still moment of calm that she needs to tell her story and to fire a gun. Donato Wharton's soundscape of muffled explosions and expelled breath adds to the effect.

But Zimmerman's language detracts from the direct impact. He is fond of an overwrought phrase – "the oasis of Michael's smile", a gun with "an obsidian stare", a "sea of mourning parents" – and that straining for effect when his subject really does not need it, turns the play into a heartfelt melodrama.

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