Lesley Sharp gives a stunning performance in this chokingly intense gothic from Robert Alan Evans
Woman (Sharp) finds Boy (Finn Bennett) freezing in the woods during a storm and brings him back to her shack, tentatively beginning to care for the terrified creature. Sharp is astonishing: she gargles the vowels of a Deep South accent, and has the twisted physicality of a crack addict, itching and twitching. The pair scratch out an existence, lighting fires with bird’s nests to stave off the cold.
In Naomi Dawson’s design, the woods are stark – bare trees, the metal outline of the hut only. But above it, occasionally we get brief flashes of a modern kitchen, with a blinking baby monitor. A more modern, more real world entirely.
Woman is visited by Wolf, another southern drawler in a banana tracksuit. Tom Mothersdale owns the stage in the role, delivering a mix of amusingly banal chat and simmering menace that’s pretty Pinter-esque – or maybe more Tarantino, actually, given that yellow trackie…
He claims to be her son, but a disturbing power dynamic emerges in their curt exchanges; Evans uses an abrupt yet relentless rhythm in both dialogue and scene structure that can sometimes be comic, sometimes feel violent. Wolf is physically dominating and threatening, but he also decimates Woman’s self-worth, convincing her there is no way out of the woods; it’s classic domestic abuse. When she tries to escape with Boy, he takes on different forms to stop her – policeman, shop assistant, doctor – to jarring, blackly comic effect.
You slowly work out that Woman is suffering extreme post-partum depression. The woods are a metaphor for it – she felt them closing in, feared she’d passed on the same darkness to her baby son. She begins to drops into a British accent occasionally; we get glimpses of a ‘normal’ mum, struggling.
Is all this Southern Gothic just a psychotic episode? In that case, how real is Boy? Is Wolf her tormenting guilty conscience, some dread accusing version of her baby son, or the disease itself, resisting recovery? Or maybe a partner she plays very dark games with: Woman seems complicit in the make-believe, calling out his bad costumes. ‘The Woods’ occasionally reads like a really, really weird version ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia (ha!) Woolf?’
The obtuseness of Evans’s nightmare-logic will no doubt frustrate some, and at times evoking mood seems to trump clarity of intention. But by god, it goes to work on you. Morrison’s production is intense, macabre, funny. It’s also – crucially – a tender thing. And it’s stalked by great performers, whose focus didn’t waver, even after an alarm went off and everyone had to be evacuated. As if the play weren’t generating quite enough tension of its own.