Aalst | National Theatre of ScotlandPhotos - Richard Campbell

In January 1999, the Belgian town of Aalst was host to the horrific murder of a seven year old boy and his three month old sister by their parents. The infant was suffocated with a pillow, while the boy was stabbed in the back with a pair of scissors. Until this shocking event and the media spectacle that followed, it was a town known for its sugar factory and three-day post-Christmas festivities. However, thanks to Pol Heyvaert’s theatrical retelling of the murders - based upon statements, interviews, television footage and a documentary on the investigation - it is now the subject of a stark and thoughtful play that has found success throughout Europe and now finds its way to Australia for limited runs in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth.

Featuring brave performances by respected lead actors Kate Dickie and David McKay - playing Cathy and Michael Delaney, respectively - Aalst sees the two seated awkwardly on stage for just over an hour as they are interrogated by the disembodied voice of Gary Lewis. The interrogation works to ‘solve the crossword puzzle’ of the pair’s life leading up to - and including - the murder of their two children. We learn of the Delaney’s individual torment as youths, the meeting of the pair and the domestic abuse that followed. We hear of continual exploitation of the welfare system, of unpaid debts and of grim living conditions that include painted black lightbulbs and the use of the refrigerator for light when needed. To the audience, it is clear the couple are socially incompetent. To the couple, society simply doesn’t share their point-of-view - a point made most apparent when the Delaneys attempt to justify the killing of their two children.

While the acting is absolutely top-notch - particularly the delicate emotion and body language of Kate Dickie - the problems lie in the seemingly unintentional repetition of entire script sequences and the somewhat glaring contradictions between what we are told and what we see before us and hear from the interrogator. For example, the testimony is of two individuals claiming to have a taste for darkness and a dislike of cleanliness, yet what we see before us are a reasonably attractive - albeit solemn - pair wearing a pink sweater and a well-fitted business suit. Furthermore, they speak in such a way that rationalises their lifestyle and acknowledges childhood trauma and behavioural issues, yet we are told they are of perfectly normal intelligence and sound minds. Such obvious lack of logic serves as a distracting element of the show whereby it becomes difficult to trust the authoritarian voice of the interrogator. But perhaps this is ultimately the point. Are those who repeatedly shun yet take advantage of the welfare state entitled to having their voice heard? Is it worth seeking reason in such an horrendous act of child murder? More to the point, just how far back in an individual’s sad history can blame be passed?

As a dark and disturbing performance that poses difficult questions about victims and aggressors, Aalst succeeds wonderfully. The acting is terrific and the story thought-provoking - the problem lies in an apparent lack of focus and what is ultimately a far more miserable than enlightening experience.

Brisbane Powerhouse presents a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland; Victoria, Belgium and Tramway, Glasgow

Venue: Powerhouse Theatre
Dates: Tue 29 January – Sun 3 February
Times: Tue -Wed 6:30pm, Thurs – Sat 7:30pm + Sun 5pm
Tickets: $40 (f) - $34(c)
Bookings: 07 3358 8600 or brisbanepowerhouse.org

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