If you only see one play this fringe, make it 9 Circles by House of Cards writer Bill Cain. Named after the rings of hell in Dante’s Inferno, Cain’s play about one man’s war crimes in Iraq is a hellhole of injustice based on the real-life case of US serviceman Steve Dale Green. Private Reeves, our protagonist, is on trial for murdering a family and raping their 14-year-old daughter while serving in Iraq. It's a heavy play that asks us to look horror in the face.
Cain's script deftly unpicks the moral fibre of a nation too squeamish to face the injustices carried out on foreign soil in the name of freedom. Execution of civilians and rape count among the sins committed by Reeves. His crimes are documented and he is convicted and condemned to death. Even Private Reeves himself, brilliantly played by Joshua Collins (easily the best individual performance I’ve seen this year), wants to plead guilty in a court of law. A death wish, his lawyer informs him, adding that if he pleads guilty the US military will escape accountability for its institutional failings. We're also reminded that lethal injections aren't administered by doctors, who have taken an oath to do no harm, but by amateurs likely to botch the job. If the needle goes into the muscle by accident, Reeves' death will be painful and the mind will experience it consciously.
The metaphor is clear: this type of waking torture is purgatory. Perhaps it is one he deserves. Reeve’s experience in jail, his inability to articulate the neglect of the US military, the criminal justice system at large, the trials he must undergo, everything feeds into the central theme of justice, moral obligation, and redemption. Cain has written a incredibly lean, athletic script that flexes, boxes and vaults, without an inch of fat on it. Watching 9 Circles feels less like a court room drama and more like nine bouts in the ring. Dexterous, witty, unbearably upsetting, it’s an exhilarating experience that runs the gamut of emotion.
Is a condemned man who committed irredeemable acts of violence beyond redemption? Yes, I think so. But the play poses a more nuanced question, which asks whether he still serves a purpose. In many ways, this is more important than one man’s salvation - perhaps his punishment can save lives. The biblical parallels between Reeves and the crucifixion have a beautiful, inverted sense of irony to them. Bad press for the war effort has Washington scrambling for a scapegoat as public opinion of the war wanes. His crimes were so cruel he makes the public ‘feel the pain of the enemy.’ It’s a high-wire act the cast must perform, balancing an argument on the edge of humanity. The ensemble is brilliant; their performance never loses sight of the heart of the play, which is its radical empathy.
Above the stage a huge neon circle pulses red and white. There’s a grace to the otherwise sparse, set-less choreography. Olivier-winning Guy Masterson’s direction is first rate. Costumes and locations quick-change between (and within) individual scenes as we flash backward and forward in the story. The drama never loses pace or tension, which only seems to gain momentum as the play approaches the final act. We know we only have so many circles to pass through and our anticipation as we count down to the ninth is rewarded with a phenomenal, haunting finale.
9 Circles is exceptional, a hell-harrowing piece of modern political theatre. Cain has written a court room drama of biblical proportion that plays devil’s advocate to real-life events with its superb cast of characters, from lawyer to preacher, solider and psychologist. Law, morality, religion, war, mental health. The themes are perfectly compact in the dialogue without feeling overwrought. Plot is king. There’s so much to unpack, it’s impossible to take it all in in one sitting. I was absolutely blown away.