On the Exhale starts out as one thing and begins to morph into something very different. Or does it? Martín Zimmerman’s play on American gun violence doesn’t feel the need to dwell on the lead up to school shootings: the mental health of the perpetrator, the extent of their plans, or their upbringing. Instead, he focuses on the aftermath of these destructive moments: the idea that, as Polly Frame’s unnamed character says, a mother can drop her son off at school one unremarkable September day, then never see any part of him again.
A sort of voyeuristic fascination rocket-propels this 75-minute monologue that begins with tragedy and descends into a murky swamp of obsession, mental violence, and grief. The narrator finds herself unable to come to terms with the death of her son: there was no CCTV in the building (a fact that Zimmerman subtly suggests she feels personally responsible for), the shooter has killed himself, and the bodies involved were so mangled that the only option was a closed-casket funeral. Her inability to understand the horrific final moments of the life of her child leaves her unable to find closure in the aftermath of his death, and, so, she turns to something else.
Retrieving the case files from the police station, recreating the crime scene in her living room, and standing where the shooter stood gets her nowhere – so, propelled by righteous anger, she heads to the gun store where the weapon used in the shooting was (legally) bought. But upon walking through the door, she finds herself transfixed by the particular assault rifle. So begins a strange, hypnotic journey that goes to places both alien and dangerous: where we fear for our ‘heroes’ life, and the lives of those who she might hurt; for America, even.
But as powerful as this all sounds, and as powerful as it is, On the Exhale has a hamartia of Shakespearian proportions: context. Outside of the US, the monologue lacks the whiplash immediacy required to stir many feelings outside of pity: anger, motivation, relatability. It is, to some extent, a geographical circlejerk: a-ha, look at those silly Americans, with their ridiculous laws that end up causing school shootings. Yeah, no shit. No shit, from a UK perspective, that second amendment laws are ridiculous; no shit, that they end up getting children killed; no shit, that they cause nothing but harm, and even their key advocates doubt them. Lane goes on and on about little anti-gun stickers on the doors of classrooms in a way that feels like it was designed to be relatable: across the pond, perhaps, but at the Fringe there’s little traction. The monologue makes sole use of the second person to, quite obviously, draw us in – to make us imagine ourselves in the situation of the narrator. But I found myself having to force myself into that perspective to make sense of it – it didn’t feel natural. If anything, the second person becomes more alienating in this context – it means that Polly Frame becomes distanced from the story she is the protagonist of, diluting some of the potential emotional impact.
I think back to Ulster American, also, and on the uproarious laughter that greeted the suggestion, by a character, that the theatre could be part of a ‘post-Brexit cultural revolution’, that plays could shape politics. Being honest with ourselves here, the notions that On the Exhale would ever really play to people who were pro-gun, and that the play would change their minds, are ludicrous. Although the play is, for want of a better term, hard-hitting, it lacks any real depth: this is an objective presentation of gun violence and is in many ways similar to stories we’ve already heard. So, really, the force of the piece is in its political aspirations – aspirations that will never be met in a medium whose audience is primarily middle-class, left-leaning, and intelligent. This is not a gun-toting audience. Anywhere.
Geography aside, On the Exhale remains impressive partially because of its stunning production. Colin Grenfell’s lighting design features fluorescent tubes – reminiscent of those in schools – scattered over the stage in seemingly random fashion. Frame walks among them, as if stepping through the detritus of a ruined classroom. This is a breathtakingly intense piece, and whenever the script delves into tense territory, the lights begin to flicker. Frankie Bradshaw’s stage isn’t raised – it’s at ground level – so when we’re watching the play, we’re primarily looking at Polly Frame and not at the scattered lights. The effect this achieves when the strobing and flickering begins is genuinely incredible: it’s as if Frame is disappearing from the bottom up inside some sort of limitless void. In the front row of the Traverse, with nothing but black all around, it’s a disorientating, nightmarish aesthetic that chimes spot on with the monologue being spoken on stage. If I had to describe the effect in more empirical terms, I’d say it was the visual equivalent of the ticking clock in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – a superb agent for tension.
So that leaves me with a bit of a dilemma: how to properly evaluate On the Exhale. Objectivity is important in critical analysis, but I think subjectivity can get short shrift. This is a fantastic piece of work, and there’s nothing wrong with a piece of work that needs to be performed in a certain context to have real impact. In New York, say, this show could be a real barnstormer of an experience. There is, of course, an argument to be made for plays that bring an international issue to light in a foreign country – but American gun violence is something that every man and his dog knows about, and On the Exhale doesn’t add anything new to the popular understanding of the subject. To achieve what I think it sets out to achieve, this is a play that needs to strike a chord with its audience; it needs to anger them; it needs to persuade them to do something. Here, in Edinburgh, there’s no real need to do anything. Perhaps the American tourists will feel differently.