This is the English translation of a Swedish play (written by Niklas Radstrom, translated by Gabriella Berggren) about the murder of the young British toddler by two ten year-old boys. First performed live in Copenhagen in 2004, the English play debuted in London in 2009.
While reading the text of a play is vastly different to seeing it performed live, MONSTERS illuminates a number of essential questions in a riveting and effective manner. One is conscious the whole time of questions such as: What is evil? How do we stop it? Which is worse: to be the mother of the murdered child or the mother of the child who murders? Who was responsible for this murder? Is our tragic fate, as individuals and as a collective, always to be violence, or can we do something to intervene and change events?
With the structure of a Greek tragedy (complete with Chorus), the play uses fact to recreate the events surrounding the case without relying on sensation or gore. Not only is the stage direction for a sparse and neutral setting, but the dialogue is also presented in a clear documentary style, which avoids manipulating a tragic case into melodrama.
I did not like two aspects of the play. The first was the repeated attempt to lay a collective guilt on the people who, on that day in the shopping mall, did not notice anything wrong or who did not intervene. “Why didn’t you do something?” the Chorus Leader continuously exhorts both the play’s current audience and the shoppers of that fated day.
The second aspect I did not enjoy about this play was the clear sympathy for the murderers. They’re called “two confused boys who have landed in something they don’t know how to escape.” The guilt, Radstrom clearly believes, lies not with the choices the boys made to deliberately murder another child (James Bulger was the second child they’d tried to abduct that fated day) but with a society that (a) doesn’t intervene and (b) allows the kind of life the two boys and their families had. “Somebody should have given us a different life,” says Jon’s mother. We make our own choices in life: many people who live in dire circumstances of poverty do not choose, as these two boys did, to murder for no real apparent reason whatsoever.
Scene 13 (“Children who have murdered other children”) was the most shocking. An almost casual list of gruesome child on childe murder cases, dating back to 1748, was quite horrifying. Once again, though, Radstrom turns the guilt away from the children and onto a society that stands by without intervening, making the point that a violent society will breed violent children capable of individual acts of indescribable cruelty.
This was a thought-provoking and challenging text raising many fundamental issues that need to be explored if humanity is to have any hope of understanding, and perhaps overcoming, the inherent darkness (evil?) that lies within our nature.