Niklas Rådström, translated by Gabriella Berggren
Strawberry Vale Productions with Arcola Theatre
Arcola Theatre, Dalston
Why would anyone want to see a play about two children killing a smaller child? That is a question this play asks its audience at the outset. Just why is each of us there?
"Do you think it is useful to watch two children killing a third?" - though that is the expectation rather than what the play presents.
One might also ask why should a Swedish dramatist want to write a play about this British incident? The subject, as you may have guessed, is the murder of two-year old James Bulger by 10-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in 1993.
It was a case which gained media attention the world over. Again why? Because the age of the killers makes it so exceptional? Not so, as a catalogue of recorded precedents since 1748 included in this play makes clear. But they were not put in the spotlight by contemporary international news media and was also the fact that the child's abduction took place under the public gaze in a shopping mall, watched by closed circuit television cameras.
A dozen television screens suspended around the theatre are a reminder both of media and surveillance. They show news reels from the 90s before the play proper starts: Major, Lamont, men in tanks, scenes in Africa and restful green grass (though who knows what that hides?). Later, seen out of the corner of the eye, they often offer a parallel commentary to what is happening on stage, with violence shown when violence is mentioned for instance, intermixed with live images of the actors as they are performing.
Written in a form of free verse, though drawn partly from police records and court documents, much of it is in verbatim style. The documentary nature of the police interrogations of the boys, which form the core of the play, is emphasised by being read as though from the files in which they are recorded. Other scenes are like choruses from Greek tragedy and occasional monologues give an emotional insight into the parent's situations.
Apart from the television screens Jon Bausor's design offers a blank canvas - literally a piece of cloth marked out with a perimeter like a ball court on which the boy's names are then chalked out: 'Jon' and 'Robert.'
This is a presentational production and never exploitive. Christopher Haydon's direction draws fine performances from his four actors: Lucy Ellinson, Sandy Grierson, Jeremy Killick, and Victoria Pratt. Ignoring age and gender as they switch between roles or take on their chorus role, they have a directness that even overcomes the problem of audibility when playing across the open space of this in-the-round staging. More clarity and perhaps a little more volume on occasion would be an asset - I sometimes missed the exact content of whole speeches from where I was sitting, but not their overall sense and feeling. There is a particularly moving moment when one actor, speaking as a performer character, speaks of his own dead child, an aborted daughter, but all of them keep a careful balance between the character's emotion and their presentation of it. Brecht would have loved them.
Breaks between the play's thirty scenes are marked by sudden harsh lighting, white noise and loud unpleasant sounds. They jolt one out of watching and perhaps help concentrate the mind while any rearrangement of the minimal furniture or redeployment of the performers happens but they went on much longer than that required so that their duration because an unsettling irritation - presumably just what the director intended to make this a less comfortable evening in the theatre.
As I reviewer I did not really have to answer the cast's opening questions and this probably would not have been on my list of shows to catch as an ordinary theatregoer -- but I am very glad that I did see it. It offers no solutions, nor pretends to, but neither does it really make a case for this murder being our joint responsibility, as it so frequently reiterates, but it does make an excellent piece of theatre and one well worth seeing.
This play certainly didn't make me feel guilty for this particular crime, but that is not the point. At the opening it also asks: "Are you prepared to be a witness? If so will you only be a witness? Or are you prepared to intervene?"
Its real message is that, in a world where our social and community responsibilities are too easily ignored since Thatcher abolished 'society', we still have a duty of awareness of others and of intervention. My conscience agrees without hesitation but, with the media highlighting knife and gun crime among youngsters and police saying don't place yourself at risk, quite apart from accusations of paedophilia and molestation if you dare to speak to a child these days, there is another attitude that says 'mind your own business.' Are you prepared to put yourself on the line?
Until 30th May 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton