Turner Prize-winning Douglas Gordon has collaborated with celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud to bring Neck of the Woods, a visual art, music and theatre production, to Manchester’s new theatre space HOME. Legendary actress Charlotte Rampling joins them to tell the story of the wolf as we’ve never heard it before.
The piece begins well to engage the audience – in complete and utter darkness. I don’t think I’ve ever been so in the dark before – no exit signs, nothing. Pure, terrifying darkness. We sit in this darkness, blind and listening for a good five minutes to the thud of an axe on wood and a man’s shortening breath. When the tree finally falls, the noise is so deafening it shakes the auditorium. The way this allows us to focus purely on sound is an interesting way to let us into the piece.
Gordon’s concept is a simple and beautiful one: an exploration into wolves as creatures, into their habitat and wolves in fairy tales – namely Little Red Riding Hood. Rampling tells this story and adds to it, identifying herself as the title character and dreaming of her past, understanding her relationship with the wolf that once tried to devour her. Rampling’s performance is elegant yet lacks energy or passion. Gordon provides the voiceover of Rampling’s father, a booming soft Scottish accent that chips in to Rampling’s story now and then.
Simple nuances in set design are lovely: the stage floor is covered in a thin layer of water, which creates a beautiful reflection of Grimaud at the piano. A delicate layer of snow falls during a piano piece, as Rampling cradles the wolf like a child holding a teddy bear.
Unfortunately, Neck of the Woods lacks rhythm and pace. Points of beautiful stillness held too long turn stagnant, and Rampling’s narrative is placed awkwardly in between Grimaud’s pieces with no attempt to layer or overlap the two.
The biggest shame here is the use of the choir – or lack of. The Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir is a group that celebrates choral traditions across a range of different faiths and cultures, and work together to create beautiful soundscapes, songs and chants. Sadly, I never got to hear any of this as the handful of women that were chosen to perform in Neck of the Woods were plonked upstage in the darkness for most of the performance. Every now and then the choir would appear under a dim light, make whooshes and rustles for an authentic forest experience, and disappear again. This is truly disappointing and a waste of what could have been an enchanting enhancement to Rampling’s narrative.
Gordon’s collaborative project has some beautiful elements that reimagine the concept of storytelling and dreamlike nostalgia. Rampling’s story of the woods is touching and intimate, and Grimaud’s talent is a delight to experience. However, Gordon’s production as a piece of theatre is not easy to engage with and the tools he has to create it aren’t used to their full potential.
Neck of the Woods is playing HOME until 18 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Manchester International Festival website. Photo by Douglas Gordon.