Brisbane Powerhouse (National Theatre of Scotland/Tramway)


By Duncan McLean

Professional production

Usually when we go to see a play, we come out with some kind of resolution in our own minds. Whether the writing and production are good or bad, we have formed an opinion about the message of the play, made up our minds about the characters and their motivation and, in serious plays, made an ethical judgment about the worthiness or otherwise of their behaviour.

Not so with Aalst, a play about a married couple who murdered their two children, one an infant girl of three months and the other a seven-year-old boy. It’s based on a real-life incident that took place nine years ago in the small Belgium town of Aalst, where the parents are currently serving time for the crime, which they freely admitted committing.

The trial of these two people has been dramatised in a gut-wrenching one-hour interrogation, and the version we are seeing has been transferred to Scotland with Scottish actors. This has a distancing effect from the actual trial but, at the same time, a grim truth for an Anglo-Saxon audience , especially those who are familiar with Scottish crime series on television and the dreadful bleakness of its big cities and the hopelessness of people who live on the edge.

The pair, Cathy and Michael, who call each other Coo and Moo, sit on straight chairs side by side but not too close, leaving it open as to whether they are in the same room/court/cell or separate from each other, because although they can hear each other, they rarely interact. They are being interrogated by an emotionless male voice from the back of the theatre, and even now I’m not sure whether Gary Lewis, who takes this role, is in real-time or a recording.

Just whom this voice is supposed to be is also open to interpretation is it the voice of the judge, the prosecuting barrister, a social worker or, on a more symbolic level, the voice of God on the Day of Judgment?

This voice fires questions at the couple, about their early lives and the exact details of the crime, and they answer in flat working-class Scottish accents that chill you to the bone with their lack of emotion. We learn that both had abusive childhoods of course; that Cathy was sexually abused by her father from the age of 11 and that Michael was put in a boys’ home when very young and has been a petty criminal all his life; that he has constantly abused Cathy both sexually and physically by raping her anally, beating her up, and burning her with cigarettes; but that they love each other with a rare devotion. They also admit every detail of the way they murdered the children of taking both children to a city hotel where, on the first night, they wake up the baby and smother her with a pillow. Two days later, with the dead baby’s body still in the room, Cathy tries to smother little Matthew, who struggles and pleads with her not to kill him because he doesn’t want to die. So they hold him down and Michael stabs him in the back with a pair of scissors.

So far, so horrific, especially as the parents vacillate between admitting that their crime was unforgivable, that they did it in cold blood but wish they could turn the clock back.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve given away the plot, because the plot is not important. What matters, and what makes this play a really important piece of theatre, is the way we as audience react to the couple. Are they born monsters and heartless killers? Is there perhaps such a thing as a criminal gene, and should people like this be allowed to reproduce, or even live? All our politically-correct reactions are thrown out the window, and words like death penalty and eugenics spring unbidden to our minds.

But when we hear about their hopeless lives, their dreadful childhoods, their pathetic inability to accept responsibility and their belief that society owes them a living, we wonder whether it is the system that is indeed at fault?

It’s the old Nurture/Nature debate at its grimmest, and when Michael, finally losing his temper, suggests to the Inquisitor that perhaps it would be better if he were to kill himself (which he tried to do after the murders but failed through lack of courage), there’s a part of us that wants to stand up and cheer Yes!

But what hope did they ever have, and what is the solution to what the middle class like to call “people like this”?

There’s no suggestion offered in the play, no guidelines, and not even any hint of what their eventual fate is to be. We are left bemused and helpless, shaking our heads in despair, and thanking whatever gods there be that we don’t have to make such decisions.

And then, in the last five minutes, just when it’s becoming absolutely unbearable, there’s another twist in the motivation of the couple, and I for one was left gob-smacked and I’m not going to tell you what happens, because it’s this last suggestion that raises the play out of being simply very fine drama into greatness.

Everybody I spoke to after the performance was equally shattered, and one twenty-something literally couldn’t stand up because she was shaking so much.

It’s a perfect production of a perfect play, but it’s not a play for everyone. If you’re very fragile emotionally for any reason, you definitely shouldn’t go, and even I, cynical hard-bitten critic as I am, was on the point of walking out two or three times, and slept very badly that night. But for everybody else, this is a scarifying but must-see masterpiece.

Playing until Sunday 3 February 2008 — Tuesday, Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday — Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5pm

Duration : 65 minutes

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 28th January 2008)