LitNet | STAND: Theatre review of Monsters (version 1)

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This review is part of the LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop. The ten participants each submit a review to the workshop mentors for feedback. The participants will then be able to edit their submissions, receive additional feedback from the mentors and finalise their reviews.
This is the first version of Ignus Rademeyer’s review.

The monsters we tuck in at night

Directed and translated by Tinarie van Wyk Loots
Cast: Michele Burgers, René Cloete, Elton Landrew and Ntlanhla Kutu
Lighting and design: Jaco Bouwer
Music: Pierre-Henri Wicomb

We all have darkness within us. We all have been a witness to violence. We all struggle to be confronted with the macabre. Most of us. Unfortunately, tragedy makes no distinction between class, race, gender or age. Or fortunately?

Monsters revolves around the shocking real-life story of the murder of James Bulgar, a two-year-old, by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The event took place in 1993, and it made international headlines that shook people to their core. How can two ten-year-old boys be capable of such horror? How did no one foresee the tragedy that would unfold, when the three boys were surrounded by 17 CCTV cameras and 38 eyewitnesses? There are no answers.

The four actors sit in the audience when you enter the theatre space, and the house lights dim only slightly when the four actors take their place on the stage. Each of the actors witnesses and acknowledges the small blue jacket on a coat stand, which represents one of the four focal points of the clinical and minimalistic set. The blue jacket represents the jacket James Bulgar wore the day he was murdered. It hangs on the coat hanger like a forgotten garbage bag. The four actors move around the other three focal points: the two chairs that evolve into a playground; a house and other familiar spaces throughout the play; and an interrogation room, with a video camera that has a discerning red light and a confession podium.

When the four actors finally face the audience, they burst out their questions to the audience, to society, in a chorus. The chorus grows louder with each question, and the static and sombre soundtrack of Pierre-Henri Wicomb reaches a climax when, all at once, we are left with the most important question: “Why are you here?”

Niklas Rådström wrote the original script, which Tinarie van Wyk Loots masterfully translated, directed and adapted for South African theatre. Before the show starts, Tinarie van Wyk Loots requests that two audience members each read a part of the text when the microphone is pointed to the audience, and it just so happens that it ends up being my two best friends, sitting next to me. Hence, from the start, it is evident that the production does not rely only on the actors or technicians, but also on the audience, to take account and responsibility for what they are witnessing. An insane moment in time.

The core of Monsters lies in its narrative structure, a mosaic of tragedy, complicity and moral ambiguity. The clever integration of all parts within the theatre space and the unconventional approach to storytelling set Monsters apart from the other productions at the Woordfees that deal with violence and tragedy. The audience is not just a passive observer, but an active participant. The audience becomes part of a social experiment rather than watching a play, and it is a solid foundation to explore human apathy, societal responsibility and the nature of evil. The social experiment element of Monsters serves as an unsettling device to remind us that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places, even within the hearts of children.

The cast of Monsters consists of Michele Burgers, Elton Landrew, Ntlanhla Kutu and René Cloete, who deliver exceptional performances that evoke sympathy and revulsion. Their role-switching adds an unsettling layer to the production, showcasing the fluidity of human roles and responsibilities within society. The game of musical chairs that is used as a means of movement throughout the play is a clever link to the director’s choice to have the four actors draw lots before each performance to determine who plays which role. Was the murder also a game for Jon and Robert? The actors are never at ease in any of the roles, which mirrors the moral unease that pervades the play.

The lighting design by Jaco Bouwer and the music by Pierre-Henri Wicomb are exceptionally executed to create an uncomfortable and sombre atmosphere. The audience is stuck in an eerie world of unsurety until the final dialogue is read from testimonies and interrogation notes.

Tinarie van Wyk Loots has emerged as an important voice in South African theatre, and her abilities as a director are a revelation.

Monsters reminds one of Scandinavian auteurs, such as Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier, who are known for tackling vulnerable topics in an almost documentary style to edge out the cinematic, or in this instance the theatrical, experience.

Monsters will probably not be enjoyed by any theatregoer, since it does not provide escapism or light entertainment. It stares you straight in the eyes and reminds you that evil is within all of us.

In Niklas Rådström’s screenplay for Everlasting moments, one of the characters states: “Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing.” And that is why I was there. I was there to realise that one cannot turn a blind eye to the horrors that surround us.

Also read:

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