Harbourfront Centre's Premiere Dance Theatre
New World Stage International Performance Series
Victoria Theatre Company, Belgium
Cast: Lies Pauwels and Jeroen Perceval
Director: Pol Heyvaert
Last night my friend Sibel and I went to see the play, Aalst. As we sat down in our seats all we knew was that it was a 'Belgian Play'. We had been given the tickets and hadn't had time to read the program to familiarize us with the synopsis.
The curtain rose, a bright-white light beamed down on to a sparse set with two molded plastic chairs separated by space, each next to a free-standing microphone on a large square of dark-red carpet. In the chairs sat a man and woman, who there was nothing in particular to comment on, except they both had terrible posture and that they were unaware of each other's presence.
A voice began to ask the man and woman a series of individual questions in a detached interview/interrogation style voice. The man and woman answered in turn, in a mostly monotone, slightly scattered and contradictory manner.
It became apparent that they both had come from family backgrounds of abuse and minor criminal activities, and that they were a couple. Through the questioning you also discovered that these two people had taken advantage of the social welfare system, lived in state of twisted domesticity (included behaviour such as throwing televisions out of windows), and that the husband had physically abused his wife. Worst of all, you began to realize that this couple had murdered both of their children and yet had no real remorse or any clearly explainable motive for doing so.
The details of this couple’s reality, attitudes, reactions and attempts at justification for their actions were completely beyond my realm of comprehension. Both characters had justifications for everything, that were often bizarre and never acknowledged the slightest degree of personal responsibility. For example, when the man was asked about his neighbour complaining about him throwing a television out of the window, he retorted that it was because the woman was jealous that she only had one television, so she couldn't throw one out of the window. For the majority of the performance I assumed the people were mentally unstable or handicapped, until the unseen interviewer made a point of the fact that testing had shown that the couple were considered sane and of a standard IQ.
Despite the wretched subject matter the two actors' performances were expertly executed with subtly and restraint. Interestinlgy, they never really attempted to invoke empathy for their characters from the audience. They were so successful at creating these emotionally empty personas, that my own emotional responses rushed to fill the voids. As a result, I felt alternately and simultaneously dismayed, disgusted and astonished at the fate of these dead children. Although the play was only an hour long, towards the end I was mentally willing it to finish because I couldn't watch or listen to any more.
Although there was no clear or dramatic resolution, somehow it didn't feel incomplete. The play ended without answering most of the questions it had raised.
It wasn’t until later that we discovered that the play was based on true events, or 'faction', and that even the dialogue had been pulled from documented statements and interviews. To say we were a bit stunned is an understatement.
It is hard to say if I would have had a less acute reaction if I had known more, or anything at all, about the play before seeing it. Chances are that I would have refused to go because of the subject matter, so for that reason alone I am very pleased that it was a surprise as it was an excellent play.
As we left the theatre we discussed how uncomfortable it made us feel, the talent of the actors, some of the social and psychological issues that it raised, but we also spoke about how sometimes you have to describe something Bad-Good. ‘Bad’, because the subject matter is horrible, yet ‘good’ because it is so well performed.
For the performance alone I would recommend this play but with a warning that it is heavy going.
Thursday, 15 March 2007