The current threat level for international terrorism in the UK is ‘severe’. Two days after the Manchester Arena bombing last year, it was raised to ‘critical’. Such announcements leave me utterly bewildered: how am I supposed to react? What does this designation mean for me and how I should behave? It feels like I’m being solemnly warned of a danger that I can do nothing to prevent. The only impact it can have in practice is to raise my anxiety level. In The Drill, Breach Theatre company explores the experience of living under such a threat and whether – like rehearsing for a play – we can achieve some mastery over our potential response to it. It is a brave production, and feels viscerally relevant to Manchester one year on.
Breach has a track record of powerful and highly original documentary-style productions. The Beanfield took the form of a re-enactment of a confrontation between Warwickshire police and peace campaigners while in Tank, they explored – to both hilarious and disturbing effect – the attempt to teach English to a dolphin as part of NASA’s research into inter-species communication. The Drill continues in this tradition, using a mixture of performance and filmed interviews, and is based on a series of courses attended by the cast, in which they were taught appropriate defensive responses to adopt in the event of an attack.
The premise of these courses is the same as any first aid course: training equips us, as ordinary people, to manage situations in the gap between the incident and the arrival of the emergency response team. And by learning how to manage the situations, we learn how to manage our anxieties about those situations. We are ‘prepared’. Or are we? As we watch actors Ellice Stevens, Amarnah Amuludun and Luke Lampard repeatedly rehearse the various scenarios, what we see is not a lessening of the sense of powerlessness but rather a ramped-up level of anxiety. Arguments develop over details of the imagined scenarios as Ellice tries to pin down exactly who the attacker is while Amarnah simply wants to see them as a personification of anger. As the scenarios develop, there is an increasing sense of desperation as well as futility. In a final role play, the frustration erupts: Amarnah has dutifully implemented all the ‘correct’ defensive strategies, but ‘terrorist’ Luke isn’t playing any more. She shouts: “You didn’t give me the gun!”, to which he replies, “Well, isn’t that the point?”
In between the scenario rehearsals, we learn a little about the personal lives of the three individuals. Ellice is grappling with spiralling anxiety over her boyfriend’s desire to start a family; Amarnah is a dancer reduced to distributing flyers in an attempt to keep solvent; and recently-rejected and heart-broken Luke finds himself driven to a sexual encounter with an older and unattractive stranger. In the most poignant moment in the play, Luke succumbs to the man for whom he has neither desire nor affection and who is old enough to be his father, because, he says resignedly “I feel safe.”
And this primal need is surely the root cause of all our flailing around in these dangerous times. It is what makes The Drill such a powerful and uncomfortable watch; we recognise both our need for control and our inevitable helplessness in the face of fear and uncertainty. And what The Drill makes clear is that these feelings are inescapable. The threat of global terrorism and our attempts to prepare for it feel like a metaphor for our personal anxieties and their destructive and intractable power.