Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Short on Catharsis.

The Greeks had a way with tragedy, it seems : ghastly events could be related to some grander scheme, designed by the gods. Nobody could cheat fate, and to think they could made them guilty of hubris, a defiant kind of pride that led to a tragic downfall. The audience staggered from the theatre emotionally drained but feeling they had been reminded of eternal truths.

Now that most people no longer believe in gods, tragedy is problematic. Attempts to blame a section of society for the suffering of others are understandably rejected, particularly if they implicate the audience.

In 1969, I saw Life Price, an example of a play so unpopular the tickets were being given away. In part it was because of the depiction of violent acts, which playwrights as highly regarded as Shakespeare get away with, despite the Greeks' insistence that they happen offstage. The main reason for its failure, as I remember, was the suggestion that modern, i.e. 'sixties', society was to blame for alienated youth.

It occurred to me that Monsters might suffer a similar fate. Life Price included the death of a baby at the hands of teenagers. Monsters examines the almost unthinkable killing of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 by a pair of ten-year-old truants, who found him wandering in a shopping mall. In a series of staged interviews with police officers and boys, sometimes through voice-overs, we find out that the boy was chosen at random, beaten to death and his body left on a railway line.
Swedish playwright Niklas Rådström highlights the fact that 38 people saw the three boys together but didn't intervene, even when the toddler was seen to be upset.

The play is staged in a modern minimalist style, in parts almost documentary, with naturalistic dialogue based on real interview notes. 'I sag school' says Robert, using clearly authentic slang, when asked to name his hobbies. At other times the actors are a chorus, lined up and formally addressing the audience, sometimes accusatory in tone.

The players, two men and two women, in nondescript clothes, stand on the periphery of a lit square, then step forward to take the roles of grieving mother, police investigator, angry father, sullen or defiant boy. The performances are convincing, especially the gaunt-cheeked Lucy Ellinson playing James's mother. Monitors show flickering media images and emit loud screeches and crackles to indicate scene changes. At times they represent futile surveillance cameras, which recorded the abduction; at times an intrusive media feeding the public's morbid curiosity , the play's title an reference to tabloid headlines.

Two of the actors, in 'neutral' mode, recite a list of children who've murdered others since 1748, their voices increasingly overlapping. They are a reminder of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral', where the audience know what is about to happen, because it has already happened and, as we are reminded,will continue to happen: ''Now... recently... soon'.

This mix of naturalism within a classical framework doesn't really work here, despite the ideal conditions for staging, in the Arcola's accessible space. Successful when the subject is the murder of a medieval archbishop, formality seems intrusive when mixed with modern urban problems and the depiction of boys killing almost casually. We don't really, in the end, know whether the dramatist blames a kind of unchanging human capacity for cruelty or the breakdown of the family for the anguish and horror we are forced to contemplate. Monsters is a better play than Life Price because it takes a particular shocking event and attempts to place it within a wider context instead of pointing to any one cause. Unlike Greek Tragedy, its message is not clearly stated, so there is no catharsis. The audience leave the theatre as baffled as when they went in.

Monsters at The Arcola Theatre: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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