Yet another premiere of a new play at the Royal Court, this time The Woods by Robert Alan Evans, impresses and proves that contemporary British drama is live and well. Evans’ tragic story is non-linear and oneiric, and a kind of ‘what you will’ ever-meandering tale, but that is why I really like it. The freedom to think of what the play is about and the need to decipher your fluctuating emotions when challenged by them very poetic – difficult text and equally demanding staging is truly rewarding.
The Woods, under very good direction by Lucy Morrison, is a production about madness, motherhood, and redemption. The Woman, played by the excellent Lesley Sharp, is seemingly trapped in a decrepit cabin in a dark forest, and in her own mind. She tries to save a Boy whom she dug out from the snow. She is repeatedly visited by Wolf, a chameleonic creature who keeps her company and tortures her psychologically, perhaps as a game, perhaps to save her. He demands that she surrenders the body of the boy to him using different, both humorous and cruel, ploys.
At the beginning, the production is no more than a series of flashing, disturbing images, accompanied by the sound of violent storm. When we hear the Woman finally speak it is gibberish at first, which later transforms into an American accent of the South. But in this play nothing stays the same for long and we are fooled by accents, actions and images. The harrowing drama in Evans’ text is heightened with great results by Naomi Dawson’s stage design and Tom Gibbons’ use of music and sound. Both of them have continental theatre practice credentials: Dawson worked in Scandinavia and Germany, and Gibbons cooperated with such masters of contemporary theatre as Ivo van Hove of the Dutch Toneelgroep company. And it really shows. The production does not focus on the text alone, and its delivery (as it is in most British productions), because the blackened branches of trees on stage and crashing water sound effects are as important as the three main characters in the play.
Lesley Sharp is a towering presence on the stage and dominates it with her gripping portrayal of a mad woman, desperate to survive the fight with her own demons. She is fragile, dangerous, piteous. The rest of ensemble for the most part assists her in delivering the story, although Tom Mothersdale is particularly good offering a playful but unsettling mixture of charm and menace as Wolf. The movement director, Vicki Igbokwe, makes sure that his body language helps him portray the relationship with Sharp’s Woman as tender and volatile, endearing and callous.
At the end of the show, Sharp delivers her confession to the Boy in the Snow, seemingly makes peace with the horrible crime she committed in the past, and she walks into the light, suggesting a metaphorical passing to the other side. We cannot be sure however if she died or if she simply left the dark prison of her mind.
So what is the final verdict? The Woods are not for the faint of heart and not for those who enjoy literariness in theatre. But if you want to be moved and bewildered, this is a production for you.