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October 2017

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An Introduction by Duncan McLean

I have written about a fair number of unpleasant and even appalling characters in my stories and plays, but nothing prepared me for the months I’ve spent in the company of Michael and Cathy Delaney. The background against which their terrible actions are played out is low key and familiar to the point of mundanity. This makes it hard to establish a protective distance between us and them. And the stark, unflinching, direct-address form of the play ensures that any distancing is impossible. That must be one of the reasons why Aalst, in performance, has such fearful power: we are in a position of unshielded intimacy with these two we’d rather run from. As we sit in our seats, staring at Michael and Cathy, they sit in their seats a few feet away, staring right back at us.

It was John Tiffany at the National Theatre of Scotland who asked me last summer if I’d be interested in writing an English version of Aalst, a play that had recently been ‘big in Belgium’. I’ve never asked him why he chose me, but I can think of a couple of likely reasons. Firstly, because in earlier plays like Rug Comes to Shuv and novels like Bunker Man, I’d been willing to explore the lives of people who felt the world was treating them cruelly, and who responded by turning back on the world in demented rage – a rage that was often vented on their nearest and dearest, and sometimes involved destruction and violence. Secondly, and more importantly, I think John would have been remembering my fascination with direct address in the theatre, which I’d experimented with in both short and full-length plays, as well as in stand-up comedy and street performance. What I value above all else in theatre is its immediacy, the directness with which it can communicate: the unmediated transfer of ideas, emotions and stories from one person – the actor – to another – the audience member.

The original Flemish script was sent to me, and I made what I could of it – not much! The literal English translation that followed helped a little, but I was still baffled by a lot of the play. I had no context within which to situate the characters, I had no clear idea of who or what The Voice was; I had no understanding of the extent to which the play was based on real life events – and whether or not it mattered. And I knew nothing at all about Aalst: it’s not a town that has inspired copious pages of colourful tribute on the Web. Luckily, all that would be remedied by four intensive days in Victoria’s theatre in Ghent, working with Aalst’s writer/director, Pol Heyvaert.

Aalst turned out to be a large town just off the motorway, about half way between Brussels and Ghent. The site of Belgium’s earliest mass industries (and earliest labour movements), by the end of the 20th century, it was largely post-industrial, except for a huge sugar refinery that occupied several blocks in the middle of the town and puffed out pungent, sickly clouds across the rooftops. It reminded me of a more depressing version of Kirkcaldy or Falkirk.

The real story on which Aalst is based took place almost entirely in this grey and run-down environment. Although some details – including all personal names – have been changed, I found that Pol had been remarkably faithful to the real events. He had also been very true to the actual words of the real people. For, in an unprecedented move in that country, Belgian TV had been given access to the court room to make a documentary about the trial.

Working on the play in Ghent involved a straightforward routine: Pol and I would sit across a table, each with the English literal, and the Flemish original. And so line by line, word by word, we went through the play, starting to create a third version on the blank pad in front of us. Sometimes the work flowed quickly; other times it was very slow, with the two of us spending an hour discussing the differences between, say, the English words ‘kill’, ‘murder’ and ‘slaughter’ – and then their Flemish equivalents. Occasionally we would take a break and walk along Ghent’s charming and picturesque canals, perhaps to look in on the courtroom where the real life drama unfolded, or to visit the amazing Dr Guislain museum, a 19th century psychiatric hospital that now houses one of Europe’s greatest collections of ‘outsider art’.

The longer I worked on Aalst, the more I came to appreciate how carefully constructed it was, both syllable by syllable – through shifting tones, insistent repetitions and revealing stumbles – and on a larger structural scale: as themes weave in and out, stories are told and retold with new emphases, objects appear first as innocent incidentals, then reappear as deadly weapons. Despite its roots in court transcriptions, and despite the shocking and horrible events it relates, Aalst is certainly no brutish rant: Pol’s script is subtle, tightly worked and honed over many rewritings and rehearsals. And most remarkably, it doesn’t seem like hard work for a second: it seems fresh, direct and immediate, as if we were the first audience ever to hear these horrific tales.

I mentioned above my creating a third version of Aalst, starting back in the Victoria office in Ghent. Actually that’s not really true: what Pol and I have tried to do for the National Theatre of Scotland is not to create a new version, but to recreate the original version in English. Nothing has been added (I wasn’t allowed to move the setting to Scotland and rename the play The Lang Toun) and we have also tried hard not to leave anything out. 

Inevitably there will be things a non-Belgian audience doesn’t immediately ‘get’. The Voice, for instance: his words are based on those of the judge in the original trial, and a Belgian audience would no doubt recognise their tone and content as such. To a non-Belgian audience, the latitude the judge has to interrogate and give his views on the couple in the dock might be surprising. But it was there in the Ghent courtroom, and it is there in Aalst – and it certainly makes good theatre.

Finally, and indispensably in making good theatre, I should mention  the three actors – Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie and David McKay – whom it has been my pleasure to work with in rehearsals in Glasgow. The commitment they showed to immersing themselves in what was a very painful and punishing text was admirable. I’m not embarrassed to say that translating Aalst left me on several occasions in tears of horror and sorrow. The actors have the unenviable task of inhabiting the moral universe of Michael and Cathy through many days of rehearsal and many nights of performance. I don’t know how they can do it – but they do it brilliantly.

I will finish by recounting a moment from the second or third day of our rehearsals. Not for the first time (nor the last), we were discussing what right we had to make theatre out of the fragments of real lives, and of the real suffering of the children. How dared we write about these things and act them out, even sell tickets for the spectacle? After the real life Delaneys had been hauled before the court, in a way that, despite the best of intentions, seemed sadly inadequate in terms of either understanding what led them to do what they did, or in memorialising their victims, what right had we to drag it out into the open all over again in a fictionalised form – and in a fiction that is no doubt full of its own sad inadequacies.

But then, as Gary Lewis said, “maybe art can help us understand people in a way a court of law can’t,”. “And maybe art has a responsibility to try and understand things we can’t get at any other way – that’s what it’s for.” I think Gary is right, and in that light I commend Poly Heyvaert’s Aalst to you.  
Duncan McLean
February 2007       

This article was written to introduce the Aalst playtext, published by Methuen. Available here.