Aalst - Traverse Theatre, 19 May 2007
A delayed review of a strange and disturbing play. Aalst is a play by Duncan McLean from the Dutch original by Pol Heyvaert (with Dimitri Verhulst). Heyvaert himself was directing this production and had been heavily involved in the creation of the new English version.
Aalst is a (very slightly fictionalised) account of the trial of a Belgian couple who murdered their two children in a hotel room in Aalst (near Ghent) a few years ago. It is effectively a two-hander, with David McKay as Michael Delaney and Kate Dickie as Cathy Delaney. Readers may remember my enthusiasm for Kate's work in the film Red Road earlier his year. She's just as good on stage, and McKay is right up there with her. There is also the disembodied voice of the trial judge, played by Gary Lewis, though as he took no curtain call his contribution was clearly pre-recorded.
The two actors sit on chairs confronting the audience, and what makes the confrontation most disturbing is that they seem so normal. At least, "normal" as against "clearly psychopathic". It becomes clear that both are totally amoral scroungers, almost tabloid caricatures of "social security fraudsters". Both had had very disturbed childhoods in different ways, and neither was remotely ready for the responsibility of parenthood. From their viewpoint, once they realised that their children were likely to be taken away and placed in care, they reasoned that as being in care was not a Good Thing (from their experience) the best thing they could do for the children was to kill them.
While these people come across as not psychopathic, it's hard (impossible for me) to feel sympathy for them. Especially when in the closing moments of the play you realise that they have been playing the court for sympathy all along, and you have to re-evaluate everything you've heard.
The actual killings are described in clinical detail, and the play in general is pretty disturbing. So it's all the more disorienting when you find yourself laughing at lines of dialogue, as happens quite a lot. Examples (not a feat of memory - the programme contains the whole text of the play):
Did you ever drive cars?
But you didn't have a licence.
And those cars you drove, were they registered?
And were they insured?
Michael: No. You'd have to be pretty thick to take out insurance for a car that isn't even registered.
Cathy: We're always slagged off for having five stereos, but no one ever mentions they aren't paid for yet.
Wasn't there a refrigerator thrown out of a window, Mr Delaney?
Michael: A what?
A refrigerator. A fridge.
Michael: Well, the person who says that obviously can't tell the difference between a fridge and a telly! Imagine what their home's like! 'Anything good on the fridge tonight, dear?'
As in Macbeth, the comedy serves to release tension before the grim parts. And they are grim: a daughter smothered, a son stabbed in the back with scissors as he pled for his life.
At the end of the play, I didn't feel any kind of identity or kinship with these people; they weren't "just like me". But they weren't so horribly alien that I could easily dispose of them as clearly insane either. The phrase "the banality of evil" was coined to describe the behaviour of some concentration camp guards last century, and it would seem apposite here. Just your ordinary everyday lack of a moral compass, and one day you cross the line from fraud and shoplifting to murder. "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you", as the song has it.
Even a week later I'm still working through the play really in terms of my reaction to it. What is undeniable is the brilliance of the actors' assumption of their roles. They convinced totally, as totally as any performance I've ever seen. Every gesture, every hesitation, went to make up the characters. The emotion was completely genuine, and it reminded me of Simon Callow's description of the Stanislawski approach as not learning lines but becoming the character so fully that when you opened your mouth, what came out spontaneously was the lines as written, because your reaction, your feelings, were those of the character. How Kate Dickie and David McKay have the fortitude to put themselves through that night after night I can hardly bear to contemplate.
This was the first production by the new National Theatre of Scotland I'd seen, and if it's typical then there are very interesting times ahead. I remember the ostensibly similar old Scottish Theatre Company putting on Waiting For Godot, Mr Gillie, Galileo, The Wallace, Let Wives Tak Tent and Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites (twice, memorably, in the Edinburgh Festival) and I have missed it since it went away. New faces, new writing, but the same commitment to excellence.
If you have the chance to see Aalst I urge you to do so; though be warned, it isn't easy viewing.