The current situation in Europe has seen the subject of war crimes raised more often than usual in the media, and perhaps has people questioning who is really responsible for the crimes of soldiers. The European Premiere of House of Cards writer Bill Cain’s 9 Circles follows success in the US, where the play first debuted in Chicago nine years ago.
It comes to London’s Park Theatre under the direction of Guy Masterson, who most recently directed the West End transfer of the Edinburgh Fringe hit The Shark is Broken. This taught psychological thriller, if the title doesn’t give it away, is heavily influenced by Dante and takes much inspiration from Inferno.
A smooth American voice introduces each circle to us; in the first we meet Private Daniel E. Reeves as he receives an honourable discharge from the army in the midst of Operation Iraqi Freedom, by the second he’s in a cell in Arlington, accused of unforgivable crimes against Iraqi civilians. Having already been tried by the media, politicians and public, each subsequent circle serves as Daniel’s purgatory, as he creeps towards the trial and eventual inferno.
In each circle Daniel meets 9 Circles’ many versions of Virgil, an odd pastor (Daniel Bowerbank), a psychiatrist (Samara Neely Cohen) and an army attorney (David Calvitto) to name just a few. While they may all be trying to guide Daniel, they do not necessarily have his best intentions at heart.
As we make our way through the circles, we learn more about Daniel. The all-American Texas boy has a split personality, he doesn’t seem to be affected by the horrors of war and leans towards a desire to kill. So, the question is repeatedly raised, who is ultimately responsible for Daniel’s crimes? The army who gave him weapons, the recruiter who gave him the job just to meet the quota, the psychiatrist who thought drugs were the answer, or perhaps it’s someone else entirely.
9 Circles is cleverly written, being just Dantesque enough to deliver the message while at the same time bringing contemporary themes to the fore. It occasionally lingers too long in one circle, and sometimes you wonder if conversations, such as that between Daniel and his Lieutenant, would actually play out in the way portrayed here.
What keeps the audience gripped though, is an exceptional performance from Joshua Collins as Daniel. On stage throughout, Collins is mesmerising with a physical performance filled with nuanced ticks that gradually escalate the pain of the character, while somehow managing to garner empathy despite the truly horrific nature of Daniel’s crimes. Collins deep south Texan drawl brings a poetic quality, while his monologues in the final two circles have to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Despite having been written long before the current conflict, 9 Circles couldn’t feel more relevant today. It asks its audience to do some serious soul searching, but what we find as a result could very well be surprising. This is an exceptionally good play, but it’s that central performance from Joshua Collins that really makes it an unmissable piece of theatre.
9 Circles is at Park Theatre until 23rd July 2022, it will then transfer to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 3rd to 29th August 2022.