‘I just wish I could have felt more engaged’: THE WOODS – Royal Court Theatre ★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London

The woods and a character called Wolf. Well, you’re into the land of fairy tales, aren’t you? And in this instance, grim ones, as if there are any others.

Robert Alan Evans, it turns out was Rob Evans in another life. That’s to say, in 2004, his A Girl in a Car with a Man ran at the Royal Court Upstairs with a certain Andrew Scott playing a narcissist with a predilection for camcorder selfies alongside surveillance cameras catching a child abduction. What, asked Evans then with some prescience, is all this surveillance and blasted images doing to our minds?

The role of the questionable Alex earned Scott his first acting award. Fourteen years on, and after Evans subsequently moved into plays for young people, his dark lens is now pointed at motherhood. Or rather mothering. Or rather, the effects of postnatal depression on being a mother.

Perhaps somewhere in there, Evans is questioning whether being a mother really doesn’t come naturally to every woman. But framed within his very strange fantasy/surreal setting, this possibility only comes into hazy focus towards the end of an 85 minutes that seems all too extended in Lucy Morrison’s omen-filled production.

There are signs to be sure. Naomi Dawson designs a lofty domestic kitchen above a tangle of trunk and branches below which Lesley Sharp’s ‘Woman’ is sheltering in a run-down shack. (Later, the objects we see in that ‘normal’ kitchen, a baby monitor, birthday balloon and a child’s cardigan, will turn up buried in the ground).

Beside the woman is a quivering boy, an object of her protective desperation. She wants to protect him at all costs. She found him frozen in the snow. She called his name – ‘Mathew’. Now they are bonded. Meanwhile, a smart-looking Wolf in a clean yellow tracksuit and white calf shoes looks on and from time to time and makes assaults upon the pair.

Metaphors as myth are all very well. But there has to be some tangible way by which we enter into the reality of that metaphor. I get the sense, after reading Evans’ script, that it is loaded with codes. Nothing quite stands for what it is, what we experience in ‘present time’ in the play.

Lesley Sharp’s `Woman’, for example, carries a Southern states American accent which gradually morphs into an English one. Tom Mothersdale’s Wolf meanwhile becomes dirtier, grungier and by turns, adopts the characters of a highway cop, a store-keeper in an `area of outstanding natural beauty’ and cig-smoking trans-dressed mum, but always as Wolf, attempting to wrench the Boy away from Sharp’s `Woman’.

© Manuel Harlan, Lesley Sharp as the mother and Tom Mothersdale as Wolf, this time in cop clothing…

There are several ways of looking at all of this and eventually, I settle for the idea that all of the aforementioned actually passes for a metaphorical expression of Depression as a hideous wolf in sheep’s clothing (to coin a phrase from Wolf himself), of the wood being an image of the darkness which penetrates every fibre of the mother’s being until finally the fear and the dread so overtakes her that paradoxically, the protective instinct for her new-born baby actually forces her to kill it, to save it from the pain and darkness she is experiencing.

She smothers it.

Sharp turns in a harrowingly subtle performance as the infanticidal mother, her face alive with anguish as the fictitious American – a symbol of how alien she feels from herself – before adopting a much cooler persona in her own voice.

Tom Mothersdale is athletically, nonchalantly, menacing in his various shapes and forms and although Finn Bennett, making his stage debut, spends most of his time huddled, speechless, on the floor, his impact is nonetheless poignant.

© Manuel Harlan, Lesley Sharp as the woman who finds the lost child and calls him Mathew – Finn Bennett making his stage debut…

In form and indeed in subject matter, Evans deserves praise for the risks he takes dealing with such with emotive issues as infanticide, depression and motherhood. Yet whilst admiring all of this, I just wish I could have felt more engaged in The Woods and by it.

You enter dark places when you enter the Royal Court and sometimes that can be enthralling and exhilarating. But there needs to be some kind of uplift. Sadly this time, it wasn’t present.

The Woods
A new play by Robert Alan Evans

Cast:

Boy: Finn Bennett
Kid/Hospital Porter: Charles Furness
Wolf: Tom Mothersdale
Woman: Lesley Sharp

Director: Lucy Morrison
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Lighting Designer: Anthony Arblaster
Music & Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons
Movement Director: Vicki Igbokwe
Assistant Director: Natasha Kathi-Chandra
Casting Director: Amy Ball

Premiere of The Woods at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London, Sept 5, 2018. Runs to Oct 13

This review published on this site, Sept 23, 2018

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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.