Edinburgh 22 sees the return of our 2002 WINNER OF EVERYTHING - Horse Country by CJ Hopkins
this time produced by Flying Bridge Theatre Company and directed by Olivier Award winner, Mark Bell (The Play That Goes Wrong)
Also, Guy Masterson directs and presents Collins-Cohen Production of 9 Circles by Bill Cain
Reviews from Assembly Festival run, Aug 3 - 29, 2022
UK Theatre Web 14/08/22
A powerful and moving play with tight, pacy direction from an extremely professional team. Through the discharge, trial and eventual execution of one soldier, with no empathy for those he kills, and who raped and shot innocent civilians we get a view of war that is deeply uncomfortable. Whilst he admits to the actions, his discharge was "honourable" to hide the crime, his recruitment was flawed (it required a Morals Waiver), he was shopped by his colleagues to save their own skins and he was scapegoated to assuage the guilt of those who sent him to war. As we accompany him on his journey through the 9 circles we question many aspects of society, soldiers and war itself. As is said in the play, if we empathise with those we kill how can war continue? Thought provoking.
UK Theatre Network 14/08/22 (Clare Brotherwood)
Joshua Collins should win an award for his portrayal of a US soldier with an anti-social personality disorder in this powerful and disturbing play which looks at the consequences of war.
It has already won American playwright Bill Cain (who also wrote the TV series House of Cards and Bloodline and is, incidentally, a Jesuit priest) the Steinberg Award, but Collins’ performance is something that will stay with me for a very long time.
The play is based on the true story of a US Army private, Stephen Dale Green, who went on the rampage in Iraq, committing war atrocities, and was subsequently sentenced to execution back in the USA.
In Cain’s play Collins plays Private Daniel Edward Reeves who, aged just 19, has admitted killing an Iraqi family and being party to raping, setting fire and then killing a 14-year-old girl.
Trained as a killing machine he feels nothing, but when he is questioned about throwing a dog off a roof, feelings of anger and shame come to the fore.
From the moment he stepped on stage I could feel the violence within him; he was like a coiled spring, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. I was sitting in the second row but I felt intimidated, even nervous at such close proximity. His threatening presence was just too big for the venue.
Tightly directed by the multi-award-winning Guy Masterson, whose productions I always head for each Fringe, the play questions the hypocrisies of war, and if Reeves really was to blame seeing as the army put weapons into the hands of a clinically disturbed 19-year-old.
Collins is only one of four actors who all give impressive performances: David Calvitto as the straight talking, fast talking army attorney and defense lawyer; Samar Neely Cohen as the public defender, army shrink and prosecutor, and I particularly liked Daniel Bowerbank’s moving scene as the prison pastor trying to help Reeves; yet another occasion when pent-up emotions really let rip.
This is a must see production, but be warned, it’s not an easy ride.
OUTSTANDING SHOW (unstarred) FringeReview 11/08/22 (Annie Loui)
A taut psychological thriller seeks justice from the collision of morality and empathy. European Premiere from multi-award winning House Of Cards writer Bill Cain, directed by Olivier winner Guy Masterson (Morecambe, The Shark Is Broken), starring Joshua Collins, Samara Neely Cohen, Daniel Bowerbank, and Fringe favourite, Stage Award and multiple Fringe First winner, David Calvitto.
A young soldier wants to kill everyone- House of Cards writer Bill Cain creates a powerful psychological examination of a young Texan soldier in Iraq gone wrong. Discharged from service against his will, he creates “a war of one” and continues a vicious attack on “the enemy”. Without giving too much away, I will say that the context of war, and the subsequent examination of morality and justification is the crux of this excellent play. Reasoning with complete conviction and belligerent intelligence the soldier, played by the excellent Joshua Collins, explains that he is upholding his oath to kill the enemy and defend his country. Through conversations with lawyers, a psychiatrist, and a chaplain on his way through the system of conviction and imprisonment, a remorseless soldier reveals his inner-demons, and we are left shaken and chilled.
Cain has taken a true story about war- time atrocities in 2006, and torqued it slightly to make a complex and effective anti-war statement that is cleverly argued and achingly sad. A military lawyer lets Daniel know that he has scared “them”. “Them” being the jaded heads of state who are so shocked by the extreme brutality of the soldier’s actions that they have empathy for the enemy. The lawyer wants to capitalize on this empathy and use Daniel’s desire for heroism to make him a public example of why this war should end.
Astute, political and personal, the circles of this soldier’s defenses are progressively peeled away to demonstrate his own personal hell. By the end, the audience is in rapt attention, and leaves the theater to a disturbing soundtrack of Ukranian music. The point is forced home.
Dramatic and powerful, and delivered at an unrelenting pace, 9 Circles is a tour de force for the excellent Joshua Collins playing the Texan soldier, with strong support from Samara Neely Cohen, Daniel Bowerbank and the transformative David Calvitto playing multiple roles. Skillfully directed and produced by Guy Masterson. This is an Outstanding production. The complexities of empathy in the story have led previous reviewers to criticize the play for being too empathetic to the solider. I found this hour-long play of highly charged argument an extremely effective anti-war vehicle. It is not a surprise that the writer is a Jesuit, observing morality from all sides, and referencing classic medieval concepts of hell to give us a structural and moral framework by which to examine this damaged human. Provocative and unforgettable. Despite the brutal subject matter, it is impossible for attention to flag.
Broadway Baby 24/08/22 (Richard Beck)
From House of Cards writer Bill Cain and The Shark is Broken director Guy Masterson, 9 Circles is a brilliantly performed, harrowing psychological thriller that would be shocking as a work of fiction.That it is based on the real-life story of Steven Dale Green, a repatriated US Army Private accused of war crimes, makes it all the more shocking and distressing.
A brilliantly performed harrowing psychological thriller
Conceptually based on Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell, Private Daniel Reeves (Joshua Collins) is a conscript to the army who would never have passed the normal entry requirements given his previous convictions in his home town of Midland Texas, but the US is desperate for soldiers to serve in Iraq. Military training has successfully turned this teenager from the middle of nowhere into a coldblooded killing machine with unquestioning devotion to his oath of allegiance. For him, everyone is the enemy and he would kill them all if he had his way, including civilian men, women and children. Any sense of humanity, morality, and right and wrong with which he entered into service has been rapidly eroded. Now he finds himself facing discharge from the company to which he is devoted and subsequently a trial for a string of appalling war crimes that he can hardly comprehend. He is trapped in the progression of circles that will determine his ultimate fate.
Collins gives a stunning, tightly focussed performance. He captures the militarily drilled persona of Reeves, a young man in an alien world that he barely understands, given to simplistic interpretations of circumstances; handling them with no-nonsense if often misguided directness. “A personality disorder can be an advantage in certain circumstances”, he says. But while it might provide some insight into the awkward logic he espouses it won’t be enough to save him, despite the efforts of others. Daniel Bowerbank appears with militaristic precision as the Lieutenant who sets the scene for what is to follow and later appears as the Pastor who out of his own troubled past attempts to bring comfort and salvation to Reeves. Samara Neely Cohen as the Female Lawyer, Shrink and Prosecution creates three distinct roles that illustrate some of the forces that come to bear on Reeves; the stern, the sympathetic and the aggressive. Completing the cast, David Calvitto gives two equally impassioned performances in which he encapsulates the legal mind and the manner of traditional courtroom delivery as the Army Attorney and Civilian Lawyer. Between them, they highlight the conundrums, contradictions and hypocrisies of war.
Credit has to be given to the rest of the team: Set Design by Duncan Henderson; Lighting design by Tom Turner; Sound & Composition by Jack Arnold and Movement by Mark Baldwin OBE. Between them, they provide the setting for 9 Circles which is stunning in its haunting simplicity. A mood of inescapable impending tragedy is created as Reeves is encircled in rings of light that trap him as certainly as the events themselves.
Although we are reminded many times of the brutally mortal acts Reeves committed, seen through his eyes it’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the boy who left life in the desert oilfields of Texas to greet death in the desert oilfields of Iraq.
Voice Magazine 14/08/22 (Jack Salloway)
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.
North West End 16/08/22 (Greg Holstead)
To a comfortable lecture theatre of Edinburgh University, comes the uncomfortable truths of war, and war crimes, orchestrated under the very capable hands of Director, Guy Masterson.
The 9 circles, refers to the nine rings of Dante’s Inferno. The interesting set and lighting design features a five metre wide light ring on the floor and a similar large light ring behind the stage. Rings that the central character can never escape, perhaps representing the truth of the past and the punishment of the future.
The play is based on the true story of Texan Stephen Dale Green, a US army private who went on a rampage in Iraq, murdering an Iraqi family and raping then burning the 14 year old daughter. Playwright, Bill Cain, explores the justifications for Green’s actions through the nine circles of hell, firstly in Iraq, then to a cell awaiting trial a year later in the USA, and on through another seven circles to his final, inevitable, destination.
Reeves, played brilliantly by Joshua Collins, asks, quite reasonably, ‘ How can what happened over there, make me a criminal over here? Given that the US army turned Reeves into a killing machine, we are asked to consider, who ultimately is responsible: is it the recruiting Sergeant who lowered the bar to let the troubled individual Reeves in to make up numbers? Or is it the military training? Or the lack of psychological support at the front line? Or perhaps the blame should be laid right at the top, ‘George W. the other fuck up from Texas’?
Along the course of play we are asked to question war itself and nationhood. As Reeves intones, ‘whatever’s left after the killing stops – that’s the nation’.
After watching this raw and gritty and troubling production, I exit into the bright sunlight of mid-afternoon George Square, I feel altered, I need to be de-compressed. That speaks of good theatre in my book.
Masterson, a stalwart of the Edinburgh Fringe for over twenty years and Scotsman Fringe First winner on five previous occasions, must surely be in the running again with this masterpiece.
Get Your Coats On 12/08/22 (Dan Lentell)
Guy Masterson’s done it again. He’s promised something BIG and he’s delivered. In these pages I’ve described Guy as “The First Knight of The Fringe”. In many ways Guy IS the Fringe. A veteran of coming on for thirty Augusts, in good times and bad, he’s brought with him to Edinburgh shows that set the standard by which all other Fringe theatre is measured. Guy’s got one of the best eyes in the business for scripts, for talent, and for design. He can take 2 and 2 and make 10, but give him 5 and 5 and he’ll make something even greater still. This year he’s got a strong script, an even stronger cast, flawless production values, and an hour’s worth of stage traffic that goes deep and dark.
We enter to find not 9 circles but 2, one on stage, the other framing the drama from behind. Rings of LED lighting in each help to capture and distil the distressing and unpalatable truths we’re about to mishandle. Here is the story, based on real events, of a young American soldier facing the consequences for a wartime atrocity that he may, or may not, have committed. The System that under-educated him, under-employed him, and which took him into the army despite his being morally suspect from day 1 – that same The System is now going to determine whether he lives or dies, is guilty or not guilty of the appalling crime of which he is accused.
As Private Daniel E Reeves, Joshua Collins is an enigmatic ball of furious energy sparking dangerously off officialdom’s procession of army lawyers, federal prosecutors, and even a reverend pastor. Collins’ humanizes his monster so successfully we momentarily find ourselves forgetting what his character is accused of – the rape and murder of a chid, the destruction of her family. One crime in an ocean of wartime guilt. Is it right to focus exclusively on the perpetrator instead of the victim? That’s one of several tough questions not to be raised round the family dinner table in Morningside after you leave the show.
Collins’ performance sets him out as one to watch in the coming years, especially when he’s working with actors of the calibre of his current co-stars Samara Neely Cohen, Daniel Bowerbank, and David Calvitto. Bowerbank is flawless. Neely Cohen nearly steals the show. Calvitto – despite a few minor early-in-the-run slips with the heavily redacted script – brings that precision of bearing that makes him such a Fringe favourite. The three best and most successful casts in Edinburgh right now are Sir John Steell’s ‘Alexander and Bucephalus’ (outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile); Steell’s rearing equestrian statue of The Duke of Wellington (outside Register House on Princes’ St); and the cast of Guy Masterson’s ‘9 Circles’ which fully deserves the big crowds it’s already drawing in.
OUTSTANDING! (Unstarred) Plays International 14/08/22 (Maggie Rose)
Assembly is back in its stride post lockdown with the major venues in the city centre extremely active. In a small studio theatre in George Square, I caught 9 Circles, directed by Guy Masterson, an Olivier winner for Morecambe.
This is a searing indictment of the case of Private Steven Dale Green, who served in the US army in Iraq and was subsequently accused, along with four other soldiers, of raping and murdering Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, and also killing her family.
On a bare stage, except for two brightly-lit circles, one on the floor, and one as a backdrop (suggesting the circles of Dante’s Hell in The Divine Comedy), nine scenes unfold in rapid succession during which the accused, who is given the fictional name of Private Daniel Edwards Reeves, remains onstage.
He encounters a drug-prescribing psychiatrist, the army-appointed defence lawyer and a priest who is intent on finding out he is sane or insane, guilty or innocent, since there is no forensic proof that he committed the crime. The priest wants ultimately to help Reeves to understand whatever has occurred.
Playwright Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest, made the following comment: “The actor is a test pilot of humanity … and we are freed by that. We don’t have to be frightened of ourselves.” While agreeing that theatre succeeds by showing us ourselves as in Hamlet’s entreaty to the players to hold “… the mirror up to nature”, I personally found the portrayal deeply unsettling.
Through his protagonist, Father Cain takes us on a journey into the darkest side of the human psyche and leaves us unsure if the young man is actually guilty or not. Throughout, Reeves seems to be playing different roles, and even when he breaks down and confesses his guilt to the psychiatrist, begging for her help, one is left uncertain as to whether his confession is genuine.
Joshua Collins, in the part of Reeves, gives an outstandingly detailed and closely observed portrayal of this complex figure, sometimes soliciting our empathy, at other times creating a sense of revulsion.
TheatreandArtReviews.com 25/08/22 (outthere71)
9 Circles by Bill Cain. – Theatre, Films and Art reviews
What happens when a US Private goes rogue in Iraq? How do the Government and Army respond to disciplinary action? Character names have been changed as the storyline appears to have been based on the real-life trial of Steven Dale Green.
Private Daniel Reeves (Joshua Collins) commits the most heinous crimes while serving for his country during the Iraq war. While on trial in the US he questions why should be on trial in America for the crimes committed on foreign soil. In principle the question is reasonable, yet these acts should never go unpunished.
Training the perfect soldier who views shooting the enemy as much a part of his job as he would putting on his boots. Inevitably risks installing a mindset that can lose sight of rational thinking and crosses humanity’s boundaries.
9 Circles has been separated into nine sections examining all the events one step at a time that lead to the why what and how he has ended up in this situation and is facing the death penalty.
Placing the storyline in the structure of Dantes 9 circles of hell turns out to be a clever device. Two large circles dominate the stage one for the cast to perform in and the other to add light from behind. By the time you too have experienced verbally the events that took place in Iraq through the sixty-five-minute performance. It leaves you feeling that you have had a short trip to the circles of hell.
Although a powerful, hard-hitting and unnerving storyline the entire cast delivers exceptional performances which will leave a lasting impression and are an absolute credit to director Guy Masterson.
Daily Mail 19/08/22 (Patrick Marmion)
Nine Circles is one of the best performances on the Fringe, but it's also one of the most harrowing.
It's about a Texan GI in Iraq facing the death penalty for horrendous war crimes — because he insists on pleading guilty.
The point of Bill Cain's drama, tautly directed by Guy Masterson, is to illustrate the disturbed logic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and also raise questions about moral responsibilities in war.
A game of cat and mouse in which the GI toys with those trying to help him, does not end well. How its star, Joshua Collins, puts himself through this every day is beyond me.
The Scotsman 24/08/22 Joyce McMillan
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, with all its atrocities and pain, it’s perhaps time, once again, to look back at the west’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to reflect on what we might have learned from them. Bill Cain’s 9 Circles, playing at George Square Studios in a taut and absorbing production by Guy Masterson, follows the journey through nine of circles of hell of a young US serviceman, Daniel Edward Reeves, who is discharged from the army which is his life, and eventually put on trial in the USA, for allegedly running amok in Iraq, and raping and murdering a desperate teenage girl, after killing her whole family.
It is a terrible story; and as Reeves moves through years of hell, passed from lawyer to lawyer, first in denial then swept by waves of self-disgust, betrayed by former comrades, and finally confronted with the ultimate horror of execution by injection, it’s part of Cain’s skill to keep the fact of his crime firmly in focus, along with his own suffering.
On a simple but powerful circular set by Duncan Henderson, lit by Tom Turner, Joshua Collins delivers a superb performance as Reeves, constantly in the spotlight, and undergoing a journey for which he seems desperately ill-equipped. He receives powerful support from David Calvitto and Daniel Bowerbank in a range of army and prison roles; and if the nine circles may seem one too many, for those unconvinced that anything but oblivion lies beyond Reeves’s painful death, this remains a powerful and well-crafted play about the damage war inflicts both on victims, and on those charged by the state to commit acts of violence, as their daily work.
Scottish Field 08/08/22 (Jeremy Welch)
THE title is structured around the nine rings of Dante’s Inferno. Watching this gritty, hard hitting, and at times raw and troubling production leaves you rattled. That’s good theatre in my book.
The play is based on a US serviceman called Steve Dale Green who, while serving in Iraq, was party to the murder of an Iraqi family and the rape of their 14-year-old daughter. The playwright, Bill Cain, takes the protagonist, Private Reeves, through the nine circles to hell, firstly from Iraqi then to a holding cell awaiting trial and through the remaining seven rings to his final destination after conviction and subsequent execution.
Throughout the circles to hell, we are introduced to those that may want to assist Reeve in his understanding of what he has done and ultimately whether he is responsible for his actions or others. These characters range from a drug-prescribing psychiatrist, an alarmingly-troubled pastor, an army-appointed lawyer, and ultimately the defence and prosecution summations. It is not clear if these characters are actual or figments of Reeves fevered imagination. It’s all excellent stuff.
The script, as you would expect from Cain, is tight and each word has been used to maximum effect, there is no flab whatsoever. The acting is electric.
The questions raised in the play are clear but unanswerable. In training, we strip recruits to the baseness of humanity to make them effective in a war zone, so how we then we surprised that the same baseness can sometime result in utter undiluted brutality?
Who ultimately is responsible for that baseness? The recruiting sergeant that lowered the admission standards to let an already troubled individual, Reeves, sign up to fight as numbers need to be made up? Is it the training? The structure of the military? Are politicians responsible or the plebiscite that elects these politicians to positions of power?
There is no attempt to answer these questions and neither should there be, as they are questions with no clear answers. It is clear though that, until we find answers to those questions, there are no winners in war, not the Iraqi family, their daughter, and neither Reeves himself.
If this play leaves you debating, arguing, fulminating, or exhausted then it has done its job. For me it did all four – that’s a mark of wonderful drama.
Liam O’Dell Blog 09/08/22
9 Circles is a character study in need of more time, which feels weird given its framing around Dante’s Inferno and the nine levels of Hell. Ultimately, however, its commentary on the role of soldiers and war is buried just as deep.
It follows the case of Texas soldier Daniel Reeves (acted with astonishing and unpredictable emotion from Joshua Collins) as he stands accused of raping and murdering a young girl in Iraq. The nine circles pertain to the nine moments or encounters instrumental in his judgment over the alleged crime. Each transition is gorgeously lit in the circular set and lighting from Duncan Henderson and Tom Turner respectively.
Cramming nine circles into a 65-minute running time means there isn’t much time to make cutting political points beyond war being bad, Iraq being a mistake and the US military doing a pretty terrible job of looking after the mental health of its soldiers. If those are its answer to the question of how Reeves descended to such a level of depravity, then it’s hardly original.
While Reeves would protest against spending any longer in his hellish predicament, 9 Circles is in desperate need of more time in order to offer up a more substantial argument beyond what we already know. We’ve spent some time with Daniel in nine levels, we don’t need to go round and round in circles on a subject as deep and heavy as international conflicts.
The List 24/08/22 Rachel Cronin
The hell of warfare is explored through a despicable act perpetrated in Iraq by a US solider
An uncomfortable retelling of a horrifying crime that transformed American public opinion on the Iraq war, House Of Cards writer Bill Cain combines efforts with Olivier-winning director Guy Masterson to deliver a desperately complex play. 9 Circles (referencing Dante’s Inferno) frames this nightmarish deed perpetrated by a deeply disturbed US soldier; perhaps, though, with too much empathy.
This psychological thriller is loosely based on the criminal trial of Steven Dale Green, who murdered an Iraqi family and raped their 14-year-old daughter in 2006. Joshua Collins’ performance as Daniel Reeves (a renamed Green) is harsh and believable. He flawlessly executes the difficult task of convincing an audience to doubt his character’s version of events, all the while stringing us along with just enough emotional response to rise some sympathy out of us.
However, the piece as a whole doesn’t seem to know where it stands on the complexities and atrocities of warfare. The play seems to criticise the seemingly mindless violence behind conflict and simultaneously over-sympathises with Reeves. The Iraqi murder and rape victims are essentially ignored and end up as an afterthought. 9 Circles is a deep-dive into a troubled male psyche that ends up skating worryingly close to excusing terrible violence.
Time Out 12/08/22 (Chiara Wilkinson)
A hard-hitting psychological play directed by Guy Masterson
This is the European premiere of ‘9 Circles’, by ‘House Of Cards’ writer Bill Cain and ‘The Shark Is Broken’ director Guy Masterson. Intense, inquisitive, and often extremely hard to watch, it’s a brilliantly acted story following a convicted war criminal during the US and Iraq conflict – but at times, it all feels too much.
Stubborn 19-year-old Texas soldier Daniel Reeves Joshua Collins) was accused of brutally killing a family in Iraq, before raping and murdering a young girl and setting fire to her body. It’s heavy stuff. Reeves had to get a moral waiver to enrol in the army in the first place, and it becomes clear that he’s aggressive in nature and mentally disturbed.
As he awaits his fate, we meet lawyers, a minister, and a war psychiatrist, and another narrative emerges. ‘I don’t think it’s a war, it’s just violence,’ the psychiatrist admits. Who was really responsible for the crime: Reeves, or the politicians who sent him to war? How can men be trained to ruthlessly kill on behalf of their country, but still be expected to retain any degree of morality, or even sanity?
Two red-lit circles frame the stage, trapping the characters in the trauma and echoing the play’s structure, which follows Dante’s nine circles of hell. It’s pretty appropriate imagery: the characters are jarring and the story is deeply disturbing, especially when you learn it’s based on real-life events.
Some of the scenes feel rushed while others seemed to drag on without making any real points. It also becomes impossible to feel any sympathy for Reeves, despite the possibility that the events could all be a product of his tormented mind. We’re not given enough space to breathe or really process the crime, making it all the more difficult for the story to find a balance with its political message.
In the finale, Reeves grapples with his consuming guilt in the last moments of his life. But it’s too long and strung-out to have any resonating final effect, and there’s something troubling about the way it treats the words of his victim. Despite some incredible acting, this unsettling story needs a bit of editing and a shed more sympathy for its desired message to properly shine through.
9 Circles Audience Reviews
James Gordon (24/08/22)
A complex, nuanced script, posing big questions, superbly acted and directed, with a strikingly austere set comprising two brightly lit circles which imprison the central character but not those around him. I can’t remember the details of who inhabits which circle of Dante’s hell, nor are they explicitly referenced; this play works on its own terms. Several reviewers have called it anti-war, which it is, but it is also anti-death penalty and anti-everything that put an intelligent, strong-willed but ill-educated and maladjusted young man in a position where he could rape and murder at will and believe these actions to be acceptable. Although the atrocities he committed are referenced repeatedly, with no attempt to lessen their heinousness, he comes alarmingly close to being one more victim in a world without heroes, most of all in the final scene - an astonishing performance which is painful to watch. Don’t reckon to dash away from this and go straight into another show – it needs time to assimilate, think it through and recover.
An intense, gripping story that explores the very core of what is right and what is wrong. Superb acting all round, including the last-minute stand-in (for one of the cast who was unable to perform)!
Fiona Smith (20/08/22)
Great acting. Really engaging.
Aviva Goldstein (20/08/22)
This was a superb play and outstanding performances, most impressively by the lead who dropped into the show a few days ago when the original lead could not perform. Even holding an ipad of the script, he is an extraordinary actor.
Ken Lewis (18/08/22)
Thought provoking, excellent writing and acting. Would highly recommend.
M Rachel Edmond (18/08/22)
To the person who wrote this play - why did you fail to include a trigger warning???? To anyone considering going to see this show who is struggling with mental health problems please take care
Resolve Productions (16/08/22)
Thought-provoking, engaging, powerful, and intense. 9 Circles examines the military and war with a critical eye, a dose of humour, and a lot of insight. This is a story which asks big questions, who is really at fault in an environment that not only fosters violence, but requires it? And what does accountability look like when the military industrial complex is untouchable?
Jennifer Newlands (13/08/22)
Superb acting. Emotive story and very thought provoking. One of our top picks of the fringe this year
Kirsty Davies (12/08/22)
I’ll be honest, prior to this week I didn’t think theatre drama was my thing, I was attending the festival purely for the comedy. But while browsing through the programme the description for this caught my eye, so I thought I would give it a go. I’m so glad I did. Incredible, thought provoking performance. This has definitely converted me.
James Doherty (11/08/22)
Incredibly thought provoking and unexpected. The lead actor was INCREDIBLE. The production has just the right amount of minimalism in set, props, and outfits to feel as though nothing was missing. Really excellent show!
Just WoW. 5 stars. A powerful hard hitting 65 minutes of thought provoking drama. With superb writing, direction and acting combined to produce an excellent performance.
Based on a true story this is more than just about the war criminal and his victim. This is more than just the one dimensional news pieces you see or read about on TV or the internet.
You will definitely come away talking about it and questioning your perspective, thoughts and judgements!!
Caroline Coles (09/08/22)
5 stars . Stunning . Incisive exam of huge issue what war and under privilege does to people. Emotional
Steven Smith (08/08/22)
Engaging production with a great performance from the lead and really thought-provoking content.
Michael Gray (07/08/22)
Powerful play with excellent acting by all. After seeing 24 shows one of the best.
Linda Hardman (06/08/22)
Stunning performances especially Josh, great writing great direction… best hard hitting drama at the fringe this year.
Bertie’s Mum (04/08/22)
Definitely 5*! Superb acting by whole cast. Not an easy watch, very much on subject of the pity of war but if serious drama your thing this might be best of this year’s offerings.
HORSE COUNTRY REVIEWS ED22
NorthWestEnd.com 29/08/22 (Kathleen Mansfield)
Roll up! Roll up! Let’s talk car sales, magic tricks, Piaget, coercion and bedroom slippers. If you like your theatre slick, then Horse Country, directed by Mark Bell and featuring Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Michael Edwards of Flying Bridge Theatre Company is for you.
Fast paced and jam-packed with allusions to well-kent faces, films, songs and writers (Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller and F.Scott-Fitzgerald come to mind), this ode to The American Dream with all its frailties is crafted for speed and requires quality performers to do it justice. C J Hopkins has written both character, Sam and Bob, with boundless energy and buzz. They spend their time trying not to address the underlying issues of a macho, capitalist society while constantly talking around the issues of oppression, domination, conflict and the rousing qualities of competition and winning.
?It is a tapestry of ideas: art to reassure ourselves rather than challenge us; words replacing the true essence of things; pacify the masses with what they want; why fixing things is too hard. What have we lost along the way?
How? It’s a question they ask from all angles. Yet they never probe deeply. Is that the message? They ask that question too – what is the message? The dialogue is delivered as the flight of a bullet. Another apt symbol for America. Shoot first, talk later. This play shoots from the lip.
The physical theatre is wonderful with Sam falling on his arse more than once. The bedroom slippers are a perfect choice of footwear for men who don’t adventure in anything more than their imaginations. The simple set, lighting and sound effects make a sparse backdrop to quickfire dialogue. Presented by Guy Masterson – Theatre Tours International Ltd. Horse Country is set to travel this autumn: Savoy Theatre, Monmouth; Blackwood Miners Institute; Abergavenny Borough Theatre; Torch, Milford Haven; Theatre Clwyd.
Get Your Coats On 19/08/22 (Dan Lentell)
“A dazzling series of verbal loops, covering fishing, trained seals and sea lions, the usefulness of horses and children (once both are broken in) and ‘freedom’.”
There’s a long and honourable tradition of shows with two protagonists (usually male) trapped together in an unusual situation. ‘The Dumb Waiter’, ‘The Zoo Story’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, most of Laurel and Hardy, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Rick and Ade in ‘Bottom’ to name a few. To that list, we can now add Horse Country, CJ Hopkins’s just over 60-minute play, first seen at Edinburgh in 2002.
This time it’s Flying Bridge Theatre Company, based in Newport, to bring Sam and Bob to life. And in the form of Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Michael Edwards, they are in very safe hands. As the audience enters, both actors are onstage, slippers on, seemingly channelling their inner Laurel and Hardy (also playing as the front of House music), in particular Edward’s nervous grinning and waving to members of the crowd embodying the spirit of Mr Laurel.
However, the cosiness does not last long as the play begins in a blizzard of words, images and ideas which shake us out of any complacency. Sam and Bob, our protagonists, take us through a dazzling series of verbal loops, covering fishing, trained seals and sea lions, the usefulness of horses and children (once both are broken in) and ‘freedom’. And here’s the nub, for all Sam and Bob’s talk and dreams of freedom, they are essentially trapped in a system they cannot control and from which they seemingly cannot escape. The search for the lost nine of diamonds from their deck of cards is as futile as their quest to go “out there”, we get an occasional glimpse and then it disappears.
I was reminded at times of watching Twin Peaks, accept everything you see and hear, then work out your own meaning later.
Both actors show superb verbal and physical dexterity throughout the performance and their onstage chemistry is perfectly aligned. They invite us into their world and we willingly take the trip, which makes the one moment of real violence all the more shocking.
It’s a strong performance for Flying Bridge Theatre and hopefully will have a life beyond Edinburgh.
Come for the slapstick. Stay for the verbal gymnastics. Leave with a free carrot (maybe). Get your riding coats on and go see this.
Bohemian Britain 24/08/22 (Nick Hennegan)
Surreal, smart and unpretentious.
It’s one of the glorious, great things about the Edinburgh Fringe that you can be in the Assembly Club Bar tapping away on a laptop, when Guy Masterson, my ‘A Christmas Carol’ actor and Fringe stalwart, comes up to me and says, “What are you doing? Close that laptop and come and see a play. Here’s a free ticket.”
I first met Guy when Griff Rhys Jones arranged a Dylan Thomas Centenery celebration in Fitzrovia. He’s a great ‘Artrepreneur’ and is presenting this play, along with another… about circles? (I’ll see it this week and know more soon!) So you can’t really say no to him. Plus, in spite of Directing AND Producing ‘Winston And David’ at the Underbelly Dairy Room, (1.25pm every day! Come and say hello! Plug over, loves..!) I’m really in Edinburgh for the art, so its great to see stuff now my show is ‘bedded in’ as it were.
Horse Country by C.J. Hopkins, won all sorts of awards when it first appeared at the Ed fringe in 2002. And I kinda see why. Eventually. As I was given a direct invitation to see this first production, I’d not even read the flyer and it kept me guessing for a while. But two things became rapidly obvious from the start. The quality of the cast – and the quality of the direction. And when they got to the joke about “How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?” (“The answer? Fish. Of course!) it started to dawn on me what was going on. And later, as I was buying Guy a drink in the bar afterwards (See! There’s NO such thing as a free ticket!) and I met the cast and crew, I realised what a quality offering this is.
Bob (Dan Llewelyn Williams) takes the straighter role of the two, but perfectly foils, criticises and lovingly relates to the more clownish Sam, played brilliantly and touchingly by Michael Edwards.
Director Mark Bell gives the surreal show a solid base, with inspired movement and physicality. Mark is perhaps best known for directing The Play That Goes Wrong, so has a deft and talented touch. Which means that even if you don’t get the twenty year old references to capitalism, it’s worth the price of a ticket for the magic, missing playing cards, fishing and sea lions. Oh yes, and genocide. And Adolph Hitler makes an appearance too.
How many brilliant actors, directors and presenters does it take to make a fine, fantastic, surreal Edinburgh Fringe production? The answer is obvious. Fish. No, sorry… Horse Country.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FringeReview 15/08/22 (Jim Judges)
Bob and Sam sit drinking, talking and philosophising while they think about playing cards and much, much more. They are instantly recognisable characters. There is the childlike, scruffy-haired and dishevelled Sam in his dungarees. Then there is the smarter, more cynical, cool and collected, hat and tie wearing Bob. Like all great double acts, they are trapped in a world of their own making and they are nothing without each other. Like Laurel and Hardy, winners and losers, and fish on bicycles this duo work perfectly together and they are highly entertaining.
There is another double act at work; the writing and the performance. For writing that is this good the acting has to be good too, and it is. The talking is non-stop, with quick-fire patter and exchanges that are reminiscent of comedy from a time gone by. The delivery is flawless with supporting physicality, facial expressions and timing that provides a masterclass in acting and theatrical clowning. Fishing and the cowboy scene with wind in the hair and the question “do I look like a cowboy to you?” are two stand out scenes from many that are staged effectively, supported by subtle changes and shifts in lighting. There is even some magic too.
The writing is tight, entertaining and mesmerising. On the surface we have some funny and smart dialogue that can at times feel like a nonsensical surreal stream of consciousness that takes us from one topic to the next. There are snippets of conversational ping pong that seem to make sense but then at the same time do not. But deeper down and between the lines there is a message and a conundrum to be solved. At one point the characters challenge themselves and the audience when they say “we are talking, but what are we saying?” and that really is the central question. We are also warned “there is too much thinking”. Well, take care because this is dramatic art that prompts you to think, to fill in the gaps, and to pull together the pieces and interpret the work in your own way. Where are Bob and Sam in place and time? What are they trying to say? Are these characters two separate people or just two halves of a greater whole of nothingness? Perhaps more importantly what is a “redemption carrot” and where is that nine of diamonds?
Some of life’s most perplexing questions and cultural concerns may remain difficult if not impossible to answer. However, one action is clear, you are advised to take off your slippers, grab your hat and coat and get out there. There’s a world of wonder to be explored, it’s nice out and it’s a free country after all. You should consider making this show your next port of call.
EverythingTheatre 16/08/22 (Scott Widdell)
A charming production of ‘Lenny and George do Waiting for Godot’
C J Hopkins’ Horse Country returns to the festival having made a Fringe First and Herald Angel winning debut in 2002. In the last twenty years the world has changed tremendously, and even within the last three years, it’s clear that the Edinburgh Fringe is a completely different place too.
Sam and Bob are two Americans waiting. “I don’t know what I’m saying, words are just coming out of my mouth” says Sam. On one level, that’s exactly what this play is about, just saying things. Horse Country is rightly often likened to Waiting for Godot, but with much more grounding in place, which makes for a much more enjoyable hour if we’re all being honest with ourselves.
Whether that’s listing sandwiches or remembering vague battles and recounting glorious victories on the field or in business, theirs is an over-the-top American tone. Sam, in blue overalls and Bob, in a red velvet jacket are archetypes clearly defined enough to pass as the basest satire on America and the American Dream, which will probably never go out of fashion. “Isn’t this a great country?” says one, “what we need is more guys with guns, and women without clothes” responds the other.
This is a lively production directed well by Mark Bell that brings out the humour in the absurdist nature of the play and really makes it his own. He chews up the direction of lines like “don’t make something out of it” with strong and deliberate looks at the audience. It’s like Bell and this play are in cahoots, they know exactly what they’re talking about, even if you don’t.
Actors Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Michael Edwards do a great job of keeping up with the pace of the play, which has the pair bouncing off each other and around the stage, in what makes for a manic hour of knockaround fun.
BritishTheatreGuide 14/08/22 (David Chatterton)
Two American men are sat at a bar table with a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and a pack of cards missing the nine of diamonds. Bob is quiet and laid-back; Sam is hyperactive and appears frightened of silence.
They are obviously isolated, possibly in hiding, possibly after some kind of incident which may have involved murder. There are also some hints they may be "law enforcement types". Any suggestions of going outside, possibly fishing, may be met with initial enthusiasm but are quickly argued against.
The press release describes it as "anarchic and surreal", which gives them licence to go anywhere with this rapid-fire dialogue, including occasionally addressing the audience. At one point, they, or the author, seem to be sending up the attitudes of people who reject abstract art in favour of more of what they know, perhaps anticipating the reactions to this show.
The performances of the two actors, Daniel Llewellyn Williams and Michael Edwards, are extremely impressive, with immaculately timed delivery of crosstalk that comes at the audience like a machine gun constantly for over an hour.
The obvious parallels to draw here are with Beckett's Waiting for Godot (referenced in the publicity), Pinter's The Dumb Waiter or perhaps Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, but compared to them, I found this quite mystifying. So while I was impressed by the performances, I don't really know what was going on or what I was supposed to take from it, and 65 minutes of that is a bit much.
UK Theatre Web 11/08/22 (Clare Brotherwood)
American playwright CJ Hopkins’ two-hander has an impressive pedigree.
Winner of the Scotsman Fringe First for New Writing and the Scotsman Best of the First Fringe Award in 2002, and the Best of the Adelaide Fringe in 2004, it is directed by Olivier-award-winning Mark Bell, and produced by the Fringe’s most prolific producer and multi-award-winning director Guy Masterson. A must-see you would think.
But coming at the end of a tiring day I found myself on the one hand being lulled into a stupor as two guys of limited intelligence chew the cud about all or nothing while knocking back the bourbon and hunting an elusive nine of diamonds, while on the other hand being weighed down by the intensity of the piece.
The world through their eyes is unquestionably surreal and comic. I suppose I just chose the wrong day and the wrong time to review.
But no-one can take away the brilliance of the performances. I was surprised to find the actors are from a Welsh company, so convincing are their southern US accents and demeanour.
Michael Edwards, as Sam, is particularly engaging as a wide-eyed innocent, grinning from ear to ear, while Bob’s bored countenance, as portrayed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, only fuelled my failing energy.
Horse Country Audience Reviews:
Rich Miller 21/08/22
Both actors are skilful and wonderful. They are bursting with talent. Definitely worth a visit.
Aviva Goldstein 21/08/22
Wonderful, playful, thought-provoking and terrific acting. Deserves more audience!
Fran Leighton 17/08/22
I really liked this show! The actors were incredibly skilled and energetic in their delivery of these two characters who have nothing to do and nowhere to go. The survivors of an apocalypse, maybe? A disaster of their own devising, possibly? The bored, lonely and manic pair devise ways of passing the time. Very engaging and intriguing.