Part re-enactment of a tragedy’s aftermath and part meditation on the notion of evil, Niklas Radstrom’s Monsters (translated by Gabriella Berggren from the Swedish original) examines a crime that was seared on to the nation’s collective consciousness back in 1993: the callous murder of two-year-old James Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Shifting between bouts of verbatim theatre, accusatory questioning and choric invocations, director Christopher Haydon’s production turns a sharp eye on how society deals with child criminality.
We are initially asked why we came; the performers standing in a line seemingly contemptuous of usual audience expectations and detachment; “do you think it is useful to watch the enactment of two children killing a third?” Bearing witness ineffectually is a theme throughout and we learn 38 members of the public saw Bulger between his abduction and death without intervening. We go on to see police questioning breakdown the two boys' initial denials and gruelling parental depositions delivered as spotlighted monologues - giving us a picture of the wholly dysfunctional milieu these ten-year-olds grew up in.
With admirable dexterity four performers - Lucy Ellinson, Sandy Grierson, Jeremy Killick and Victoria Pratt - play the parents, police and the two boys themselves, stepping out of these roles to question the re-enactment itself. Television monitors around the stage flicker with news programmes from the time, a microphone is intermittently intoned upon and video cameras are tinkered with providing a mixed media glare in this cavernous space that aptly complements the forensic nature of the work.
They succeed in creating a trial atmosphere with society in the dock; accused of witnessing but not acting - anaesthetised by media images beyond the point of caring. Radstrom interrogates what he feels to be society’s tendency to bestow evil upon those that commit shocking crimes while ignoring the roots in and possible complicity of, contemporary culture.
But in being more concerned with the media’s, and by extension our own, reactions at the time rather than why the crime happened itself, the play, though well intentioned, isn’t as profound it could be. While it is true the public fury unleashed in reaction to the case was severe, it is not naïve to think that today we would look towards the obvious causal link in the two boys' atavistically brutal upbringing without issuing the vacant accusations of evil or inhumanity that Monsters criticises.
While being less strong in diagnosing modern society’s sympathies this well-crafted piece stands as a disquieting reminder of a horrific crime and the worrying capacity for it to happen again.
- Femi Fola