If you go down to The Woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. Robert Alan Evans’ new play is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It’s a harrowing, hallucinatory, but undeniably frustrating exploration of motherhood and maternity, rescued somewhat by a remarkable production from director Lucy Morrison and designer Naomi Dawson.
The Royal Court has reworked its Upstairs space countless times, but never quite like this. The audience, seated in an L-shape, surround a dark forest of spindly, floor-to-ceiling trees, in the centre of which is a flimsy wooden cabin of plywood and tarpaulin. High up on one wall, inexplicably at first, is a bright, white kitchen.
It’s a murky, menacing world for a murky, menacing play. Booming blackouts are frequent and total. A woman – the returning Lesley Sharp – frets inside the cabin, nursing a speechless boy she has found in the snow outside. A shape-shifting man, wolfish and dangerous, prowls around outside, taunting her, teasing her, and abusing her. Accents wobble between British and American. Time wanders. A baby monitor wails in the kitchen. There’s lots of oblique, often impenetrable talk of sons and mothers. Of crimes committed and punishments served.
It is, to be frank, enormously exasperating for quite a long time. Yes, all this Pinter-esque schtick is great, but who are these people? What are they doing here? What does all this symbolism – and there is an awful lot of it – mean? For the most part, you’re left groping in the dark, gripped only by cracking performances from Sharp – hunched and neurotic throughout – and Tom Mothersdale – a chameleonic, edge-of-your-seat presence as Sharp’s relentless tormentor.
Eventually, though, as this nightmarish world collapses, we get a smidgeon of sense, but only a smidgeon. Evans slightly reveals his hand, and it’s a brutal one he’s played, a haunting meditation on what society expects from women, and on how giving birth doesn’t necessarily make you a mother.
But for all the power of those closing moments, The Woods isn’t as articulate a play as it thinks it is. You still leave bewildered. It’s just too wilfully obtuse for too long. It holds its cards too close to its chest and its audience at arm’s length. It’s too caught up in its own inner workings. The hour of bafflement isn’t worth the fifteen minutes of clarity, especially when you throw in the naked violence against women.
The Woods is arguably worth catching for the production alone, though. Morrison’s staging is wonderfully atmospheric – and Sharp and Mothersdale are both on top form. A overwhelming production of an underwhelming play.