Writer: Bill Cain
Director: Guy Masterson
The writer Dante Alighieri conceived of the descent into hell as a series of nine circles, the descent through which makes it all the more inevitable that one could never escape.
That allegory works well for the story of Private Daniel Reeves (Joshua Collins), honourably discharged from the US Army during the Iraq war when his personality disorder – a lack of concern for the killing of others – becomes too much for his superiors to bear, even though it also makes him ideal for the sort of mindless role the army needs.
Returned to the US and set adrift, we next meet Reeves in a police cell – there, he believes, for driving under the influence. But another charge hangs over him: that while in Iraq, he raped a 14-year-old girl and murdered her family. If found guilty, he faces death by lethal injection.
Writer Bill Cain drip feeds facts about both the case and Reeves’ history of poor mental health through a succession of duologues the private has with a succession of lawyers, a psychologist and a rather unorthodox pastor. Collins is the sole constant, his performance magnetic, charismatic and engaging even when it seems as if the callous, murderous monster on the charge sheet might actually be an accurate depiction. In his hands, Reeves is also a sympathetic victim of the Army: in their rush to get feet on the ground in Iraq, they overlooked his history; the concerns he expresses to an army psychologist are waved away as an inconvenience.
The variable quality of the actors going head-to-head with Collins tends to dampen some of the play’s impact. The best is David Calvitto, playing two very different defence lawyers – one civilian, one military – who each muddy their dealing with their client with their own personal viewpoints.
Daniel Bowerbank’s pastor – himself a recovering alcoholic, and with a line in dry humour that verges on inappropriate – offers a change of tone in a play which otherwise invites us to descend into hell with its central character.
All this plays out on a suitably in-the-round stage design by Duncan Henderson, lit by Tom Turner’s rings of light that provide a sense of physical and mental claustrophobia.
There are several moments in the generally taut play that perhaps could tighten up. The final scene bears the brunt of these, and although that has a narrative purpose it does somewhat dampen the emotional impact of the play’s climax.
Nevertheless, Cain’s writing highlights the callousness of war, the brutality it demands of participants, and the horrors when that brutality is realised. Thanks in no small part to Collins’s performance, 9 Circles is a magnificently disturbing, compelling, essential watch.
Continues until 23 July 2022