We enter, treading on bark and wood chippings to take our seats, walking through a dark and damp wood, weaving past tall, spindling tree trunks. Naomi Dawson’s set design is eerie and immersive, like something from a dystopian fairy tale. Centre stage is a cabin, rusted and rotting, and draped in battered tarpaulin. A Woman (Lesley Sharp) is tending to a Boy (Finn Bennett), shivering in the foetal position. The lights go down, and illuminated above the woods is a kitchen scene. Sterile and all white, it’s reminiscent of a laboratory, with its great glass panels allowing us to observe the whole scene. There are a few signs of domestic life, some cereal boxes, toys strewn about, tea towels – and a red glowing baby monitor, with crackled cries streaming out of it.
It becomes clear that either of the locations must be a figment of someone’s imagination. The kitchen as a memory, perhaps, or the woods as a metaphor for the mind, a dark and difficult landscape to navigate at the best of times, not least postpartum. As Sharp, in a thin, pale dress, potters about collecting firewood for the boy, mumbling in a deep Southern accent, we’re left trying to work the whole thing out. Where are we? Who is the Woman? Who is the Boy? A ghost? Real? Alive only in the Woman’s mind? The baby heard wailing on the monitor? It remains a mystery. The introduction of the Wolf (Tom Mothersdale), fails to bring any clarity. Dressed in a canary-yellow tracksuit, with wild hair and white loafers, he stalks the woods and watches the Woman, occasionally popping in to torment her.
Appearing in various costumes and with a multitude of accents to match, Mothersdale’s Wolf is genuinely chilling. He’s suave and cunning, but also has moments of extreme vulnerability and need, which when combined make him even more terrifying. He is entirely unpredictable, and seemingly inescapable. It appears he too lives in the woods, but when the Woman tries to leave with the Boy, he follows her. What does he want? Who is he? These questions also go largely unanswered, but it seems as though he exists in the same realm as the woods itself, and since the Woman can’t find a way out, that perhaps the woods are inside her.
Lucy Morrison’s production slowly trickles into real life, and the lines between the real and the surreal become increasingly blurred. The Woman slips in and out of her previous Southern drawl and into a flat, British accent. The woods, so deep and unreachable, suddenly become a children’s playground. But in these moments where both we and the Woman begin to see the light, as soon as things start to become clearer, we are plunged back into darkness again, oftentimes with the help of the Wolf.
Robert Alan Evans’s play, on the surface, seems like a metaphor for new motherhood, presenting it as an unruly, scary landscape – as we know it can be. Sharp as the Woman gives a tirelessly tense performance. I was exhausted just watching her. Mothersdale as the Wolf is masterfully sinister, but The Woods as a whole, however, is somehow both cryptic and transparent at the same time. What little that is revealed to us, is tipped out on us almost immediately. It doesn’t take a genius to piece the clues together, and then we’re just left with more of the same. Already menacing and disturbing, with a little refining and a deeper exploration into the psychological landscape, The Woods could be remarkable.
The Woods is playing at The Royal Court Theatre until 20 October. For more information and tickets, click here.