FringeReview UK 2018
Lucy Morrison’s direction takes in a production deliberately out of scale with its avowed theme. Naomi Dawson’s set of scrunchy bark and a bare hut also features stage right but lodged above, a remote gleaming white kitchen full of modernity and a baby bleeper. Anthony Arblaster’s lighting is as tenebrous as you’d wish, but there’s as it were an illuminating moment as well as pitch dark where Tom Gibbons music and sound design crumps as noirishly True West. Till October 13th.
Crunching over bark shavings to a part of the Upstairs L-shaped seating where you’re faced with a gradually torn-down hut, you feel not only in Sam Shepard territory but with gaunt fir and larch trees sprouting around, not far from the feel of last year’s Bad Roads and the desolation of the Ukraine front. But like Angela Carter’s wolves, this wears its furs on the inside; and there is a Wolf. Lucy Morrison’s direction takes in a hugely impressive production deliberately out of scale with its avowed theme.
Lesley Sharp’s Woman enters Robert Alan Evans’ The Woods having rescued Finn Bennett’s Boy from a snowdrift, where as a lump she spotted him, knowing the ground so intimately. It’s a brief clue as she hauls him inside a hut as bare as the trees, with a little blue sacking and a few slats soon thrown to the roaring square furnace within. At one point the whole frame catches fire with the pair inside it. Naomi Dawson’s astonishing set also features stage right but lodged above, a remote gleaming white kitchen full of modernity and a baby bleeper. Which goes off.
Anthony Arblaster’s lighting is as tenebrous as you’d wish, but there’s as it were illuminating moments as well as pitch dark where Tom Gibbons music and sound design crumps as noirishly True West as a film score. It’s gesturally huge for so intimate a play. But that’s in part the point.
What’s happening is fragmented. Tom Mothersdale’s Wolf in various men’s (and once woman’s) clothing bays round abusively calling Woman ‘Mum’ with a taunt and physically as well as mentally is as vile as a yellow-track-suited Kill Bill type might be. Even when he’s also a kind of Mountie on a U. S, Highway (upbraided for his cheap imitation by Woman) or a storekeeper who produces a gun but uses it rather surprisingly; and later a very British clinician from St Joseph’s telling Woman a few homeless truths. Small toys litter the bark, are buried and scratched up by Wolf. There’s a taunting Kid too, in Charles Furness portrayal of him; he also doubles as a hospital porter and mysteriously a double of Woman from another age with her back to us.
What this isn’t about is True South despite the masterly twangs Sharp and the consummately nasty Mothersdale produce. There’s slippage, first with that lovingly fed Boy, called Matthew, as Bennett articulates his few words: he’s mostly comatose and at one point dragged around by Woman via a blanket like Mother Courage’s cart. It’s the drop-out of that twang she engages him with, and later Mothersdale’s doctor: it’s plain southern English (the London kind) that nails the slow reveals. In a sense this panoply of accent and set echoes E V Crowe’s very different The Sewing Group seen in the same space in 2016; but that was a consensually constructed reality, where people agree to an arcane fiction. Again this is Woman bargaining a tragic interiority.
And Wolf won’t let her. He demands the boy incessantly, every time Woman tries to haul him to some space of safety outside the doomed ground she forever haunts and pegs out.
Sharp, in her bedraggled nightgown throughout, twitches with premonitory trauma; a hunted stare never leaves her face, hollowed as it is by Woman’s sleepless vigil and stick-thin living. There’s a flinch for every imagined circling by Wolf, or vanishing by the Boy. It’s hypnotic.
There’s opacity in Evan’s writing, and whilst a stark fairy-tale clearly looms, the truth of it might be starker than Woman’s drawn-out tethering to this sour land. First this is a work about mental trauma, actions consequent on post-partum depression and an unimaginable outfall. We see, mutedly, what’s happened in that clinically removed kitchen.
What isn’t clear though is the lapse of time. Has Wolf grown up with Woman, how long has this prison been endured? Matthew’s about twenty at most. But like dreams that seemingly last for hours or days, their actual moment when you wake can be measured in split seconds. Wolf as clinician mentions a ‘wobble’ but this might refer to a repeat pattern or to a recent event.
Wolf’s essential persona never shifts. ‘Cause you disgusting. You got nothing good inside left at all. And I like it…. You want to feel …. human for a while. Like things might change, right? But they don’t. You and me the same. We black as stone at the bottom of a lake.’ All along Wolf tells Woman what a bad mother she is with no business holding on to Matthew whom he continually demands. The end’s harrowing as you guess what it means, through thick trees that do impressive service for the audience in a glassed stare, darkly.
Sharp and Mothersdale are superlative, Sharp in her concentrated agony, Mothersdale in his shape-shifting fur-inside guises. This production in every respect is outstanding. If there’s caveats it’s in the way that not everything here tends towards that grainy revelation, there’s returns and recalls, part of the point, but sometimes leading nowhere but a variation on what we know. But of this play’s witness and power there can be no doubt whatsoever. Compelling and unmissable.