Aalst takes its name from the Belgian suburb half-way between Brussels and Ghent where the bad news in 1999 included the murder of two small children in a hotel bedroom by their own parents. The Belgian theatre company Victoria produced a documentary case study two years ago (Pol Heyvaert’s production visited the Dublin Theatre Festival last October), and now Duncan McLean has written a new version for the National Theatre of Scotland, again directed by Heyvaert.
It’s a chilling and depressing experience that goes a very short way indeed to restoring one’s faith in humanity. Cathy and Michael Delaney (Kate Dickie and David McKay), the dysfunctional married couple, sit on either side of the stage speaking into microphones. They answer questions from the disembodied voice of a judge-cum-interviewer (Gary Lewis) whom we never see.
Their hotel room has become an antiseptic environment of a red carpet, neutral white curtains and a banal, constant background of organ music. Everything we learn in the play is taken from source material including statements and interviews, television footage of the trial and a documentary on the murder investigation. The result is like a nightmare session at home with a lower class version of the Macbeths. For the couple were in the helpless grip of a warped devotion and an idea of solving “problems” by wiping out the family that transcends any notion we might have of love and social responsibility even though the judge at one point describes them as “completely normal”.
Michael was born of elderly parents (in their fifties) and had a serious criminal record. Cathy was sexually abused by her father, was placed in a children’s home and had dabbled in shop-lifting. Their life was underpinned by the social services and benefits, some of them fraudulently obtained for emergency support.
The terrible mystery is that the murder of the children – the baby daughter is suffocated in the bed clothes, the older boy stabbed in the back with scissors after an idea of electrocuting him in his bath has been abandoned – is just something that is inevitable. There’s no planning, no premeditation, no remorse, no sorrow. It simply had to happen as a side issue in the grisly intensity of the adults’ relationship.
Only at the very end does Cathy admit that she would like to turn the clock back “because what we did was not exactly brilliant”. The hollow declamatory style of the diction induces a numb, trance-like atmosphere in the theatre. Without moving a muscle, almost, the actors create a mood of violence and horror that makes you feel completely helpless. Kate Dickie is both fierce and terrified, David McKay a bit more fidgety, but not through nerves; he has clearly suffered a humanity bypass and sits moronically trotting out his answers like a zombie on a television reality show. Is this is what we are like and what we can become? Your compassion is optional.
- Michael Coveney