LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop: Ignus Rademeyer's review of Monsters (final version)

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This review is part of the LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop. The ten participants each submitted a review to the workshop mentors for feedback. The participants reworked their reviews after two rounds of feedback from the mentors.
This is the final version of Ignus Rademeyer’s review.

The monsters we tuck in at night

Production: Monsters
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

Monsters is a bone-chilling journey of darkness and macabre violence that demands the audience to challenge themselves beyond the relaxation of normal theatre. Difficult themes, such as the cruelty and madness of young children, are explored and questioned. The play can almost be labelled as protest theatre, but labelling Monsters would be an injustice. Violence, darkness and tragedy are not labels assigned to specific individuals. Circumstances are different. Experiences are different. Monsters is different.

The play revolves around the shocking real-life story of a homicide that took place in England in 1993. Two-year-old James Bulgar was brutally murdered by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The case made international headlines that shook people to their core. How could 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, and the house lights dim only slightly when they take their place on the stage. Each of the actors notices 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 is similar to 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: two chairs, which evolve into a playground, a house and other familiar spaces throughout the play; an interrogation room with a video camera; and a confession podium.

When the four actors finally face the audience, they blurt out their questions to the audience, to society, in a chorus. The chorus grows louder with each question. 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 translated, directed and adapted for South African theatre with an unexpected approach. Different South African languages are incorporated, but the play is still set in England. Ironic or self-contradictory? England was chosen on purpose. Tinarie wanted to showcase how the unthinkable can also happen in a country that is widely regarded as safe. A country that has been chosen by many South Africans as a haven away from the violence and hatred in South Africa. However, safety is never guaranteed, and therein lies the familiarity for a South African audience member. Relevance and coincidence were further enhanced when the real-life Jon Venables parole hearing took place in conjunction with the South African premiere of Monsters. Jon Venables was denied bail on 13 December 2023. It was found that he still poses a danger to children and society.

Before the show starts, Tinarie requests that two audience members must each read a part of the text when the microphone is pointed at the audience. The experience becomes even more surreal when my two friends volunteer to read the excerpts from the text. Two mothers. It is evident from the start that the production does not rely only on the actors or technicians, but also on the audience taking account of 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. This serves as a solid foundation to explore human apathy, societal responsibility and the nature of evil.

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 a disquieting 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 uncertainty until the final dialogue is read from testimonies and interrogation notes.

Tinarie has emerged as an important voice in South African theatre, and her abilities as a director are a revelation. Her transition from actress to director started in 2018 with Swerfgoed by Bauke Snyman. The play was lauded, with nominations and awards. As an actress, her collaborations with prolific directors such as Nicola Hanekom and Marthinus Basson are also career highlights. In 2022, she was awarded the Sinjatuur Award at the kykNET Fiëstas for her contribution to South African theatre.

Monsters reminds one of Scandinavian auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier, who are known for tackling vulnerable topics in an almost documentarian style to edge out the cinematic, or in this instance the theatrical, experience. Both directors are known for their deep engagement with psychological and existential themes. Bergman’s approach is often more introspective and metaphysical, while Von Trier tends to be more provocative and experimental. Monsters succeeds in being an almost perfect blend of these styles. 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.


Theatre review: First version

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

Mentor feedback: First version

LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop 2023 mentor feedback | Ignus Rademeyer’s review of Monsters

Theatre review: Second version

LitNet | STAND: Theatre review of Monsters (version 2)

Mentor feedback: Final version

LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop 2023 final mentor feedback | Ignus Rademeyer’s review of Monsters

Also read:

LitNet | STAND: Teaterresensieslypskool 2023 | Theatre review workshop 2023

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