Aalst | National Theatre of Scotland

Aalst | National Theatre of ScotlandPhotos - Richard Campbell

It looks like one of the programming highlights of this year’s Sydney Festival, the National Theatre of Scotland’s double season of Aalst and Blackwatch, is not going to get much enthusiasm out of this website. I suspect this may have more to do with the predilections and preferences of the reviewers than the works themselves. My colleague, Ashley Walker, was not particularly enamoured of the company’s feature production, Blackwatch. It certainly did not impress him to the extent it did a lot of others who have seen the show.

I feel I can say that as I am about to do the same to Aalst. Or am I? I find myself, the morning after, ‘at sixes and sevens’: and I don’t even know what that really means.

Aalst is the smaller show: two actors seated in chairs on an otherwise empty stage, and a third in the form of a voice. The show is named after a town in Belgium where a culturally deprived and, apart from that, quite queasily weird adult couple, cold-bloodedly murder their two young children in a down-at-heel hotel room.

For those who found Blackwatch compelling, I recommend this production, as it shows you another side of the National Theatre of Scotland’s curatorial vision. This company has been born in the wake of the establishment of a Scottish parliament and deliberate moves to increase support for a native Scottish theatre. Uniquely, the National Theatre of Scotland has no single venue to call home. Instead the company plays all over Scotland, and now – due to the quality of the work it is making – around the world.

So how can a show about a psycho-murder in a middle-sized Belgian town have anything to do with Scottish identity? Well in the same way Macbeth, known as ‘the Scottish play’, written by an Englishman at that, has spoken to audiences around world now for over 200 years. By chance, both these plays look closely at the cold-blooded murder of children by adult blood relations. It’s a topic that appears to touch a primal nerve in, I guess, all societies – as the Lindy Chamberlain case, and the recent disappearance of young girl in a resort town on the Iberian peninsular testify.

Belgium has been in the news somewhat over the past two decades after the reporting of a number of seriously horrific crimes, both violent and sexual, involving child victims. On my last visit to Amsterdam, a few years back, I met a lawyer and psychiatrist, separately, who both specialized in child-abuse cases and worked mostly in Brussels. Who knows why such a seemingly uncontroversial country gains international fame this way: but the larger truth is that a lot of this sort of crime has its roots in the upbringing of the parents who usually, themselves, have been victims of abuse as children.

This is why the play relocates successfully to Scotland – as it would to any place where potholes of grinding poverty and other forms of social suffering exist. Belgium’s Pol Heyvart repeats his original tasks of designer and director of a script he co-created with Dimitri Verhulst. Much of that text comes directly from court transcripts: and only from the real world can so many truly appalling statements of fact emerge. And hang in the air as credible. Cathy and Michael Delany, the parents in this version, really are spookily weird.

This is possibly what draws us into a story which, in every other way, is repellent. How could people, no matter how deprived and damaged their own backgrounds, or ignorant, really think such thoughts, say such things? Much less commit such acts as smothering a baby and, several days later, stab the older child in the back with a pair of scissors until it falls limp. What holds the pair together as a unit is almost grotesquely fascinating.

My problem is I want an answer and we are not offered one. Is it fair to ask this of the production? Probably not. To a greater or lesser the degree, this was the experience of Australian writer, Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby (very close to the same topic), and more recently Cate Blanchett’s distressingly intense production of Blackbird written by David Harrower.

On all three occasions I have been cast out at the end of the show, presumably as planned by the creators, to suffer (for however long is required), as I go over and over the controversial material gathered in my mind. It hurts and, in each instance, I make little progress on the answer. 

Such is art – sometimes. And sometimes it has to be. Especially the theatre (with other performing arts), which embodies the singular capacity to study human behavior - up close and personal - in reconstructed time and space.

The usual proclamations go to director, Heyvaert (mentioned above); writer Duncan McLean (whose Scottish/English version appears chinkless); and actors – Kate Dickie as the mother Cathy, Davis McKay as father Michael, and Gary Lewis as the voice. The voice in the original was understood to be that of the judge, who in the Belgian courts plays a much more pro-active role in determining the facts. If I had any quibble, it would be that it might have been better to make this point clear: rather than, well into proceedings, create the impression that this is the voice of a ‘social worker’. Most of us know the European courts work differently; and many of us would know that no counsellor of any repute would speak to a client or patient in the provocative and condemnatory tone so often used here by ‘the voice’.

Am I impressed by Aalst as a work of art? Yes. It is fascinating, disciplined, intense and very much of a piece. So what is my complaint? Well, this goddam show called Aalst got under my skin. Am I in the mood for that right now? No. Why? I guess I’m going to have to think about that.

National Theatre of Scotland
Conceived, directed and designed by Pol Heyvaert in a new version by Duncan McLean from original texts by Pol Heyvaert and Dimitri Verhulst

Venue: CarriageWorks Bay 20 | 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh
Dates: January 18–23
Times: 8.00pm
Duration: 1hr, 10mins, including interval
Price: $50 / $40
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038
Online: www.sydneyfestival.org.au

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