First published in The Times, Wednesday August 12 2015
As its title implies, crime and punishment are the big subjects at the heart of this new work from Belgium’s SKaGeN theatre company. Performed by a trio of actors on a revolving stage and based on verbatim transcriptions, the piece is structured as a series of interrogations by austere authority figures of criminals whose transgressions range from the pathetic to the unpardonable.
As this legal merry-go-round turns, and the rap sheet descends from shoplifting and possession of drugs to violent assault, rape and murder, the legal process is repeatedly made to look at best a blunt instrument, at worst absurd. Our sympathies shift capriciously between the criminals and those appointed to punish or defend them. In one particularly revealing sequence Valentijn Dhaenens’s legal aid lawyer painstakingly coaches his client, a prostitute and drug addict who has been charged with hot-wiring a car, in the exact sequence of words required to avoid a custodial sentence.
Pic: Valentijn David Van Mieghem
Indeed, the performative aspect of the interview room and the law courts are repeatedly underscored by the company, from the elegant silk dress and killer heels worn by Clara van den Broek’s prosecutor to the incongruous musical interludes played by the performers on an electric organ stationed offstage.
Disappointingly, where this piece should shock and provoke, the questions it raises about the fallibility of criminal justice procedures, while difficult to argue with, are hardly revelatory. At 80 minutes, and without much in the way of variety of tone and pace, the string of encounters starts to feel repetitive and more than a little voyeuristic. When, late on, the tables are turned and the powers that be end up on the wrong side of the law, it feels as though the company is sledgehammering the rather obvious point that, when it comes to human behaviour, there is often a fine line between innocence and guilt.