The Woods at the Royal Court Theatre
If you come down to The Woods today you’re in for an unsettling and frustrating surprise. In the generic American South, a Woman (Lesley Sharp, tender and moving) digs up a Boy (Finn Bennett) from the snow. She drags him back to her wooden shack out of some kind of motherly instinct, protecting him from the big bad Wolf (Tom Mothersdale, often dressed like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, clearly having a ball) prowling outside the door.
The thing is, that little summary – one that fairly accurately covers the first third – doesn’t end up meaning a whole lot. Robert Alan Evans’s new drama is the kind of play that gradually, inch by inch, pulls the rug out from underneath the audience, in a way that doesn’t really yield an “ah-ha” moment but one “huh?” after another. And that’s fine; that can be great, even. Here, however, the patina of strangeness often feels like narrative stalling, each scene an annoying combination of abstraction and red herring.
Once the threads do start to pull together – and turn back now if you don’t want it spoiled – it both unlocks and undermines much of what has gone before, while also raising a lot of questions about how Evans has got there. The Woods appears to be about postpartum depression. The world of the piece is (maybe) revealed to be the fractured, numb experiences of Sharp’s guilt-ridden mother, Mothersdale’s collection of tormentors standing in for those who, in “real” life, acted as the chorus to her struggles.
One of the ways the production’s façade slips is through accents, a Southern twang trickling into the Queen’s English. Yet this raises a sort of unpleasant class dynamic that is never explored, where a seemingly well-to-do English women’s mental hell manifests itself as the poverty of someone in America’s Deep South.
It’s also worth noting that, as per Victoria Sadler’s blog detailing the gender split of plays on in London in 2018, less than half of the Royal Court’s productions this year were written by woman. That makes the choice to present a male play – and a not particularly good one at that, though there are some nice disturbing touches by director Lucy Morrison and designer Naomi Dawson – about a topic as female-specific as postpartum depression a peculiar, and largely unenlightening, decision.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Woods is at the Royal Court Theatre from 5th September until 20th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.