As the lights come up in the Royal Court theatre, we see a sparse clearing in a forest. A woman collects kindling whilst a boy shivers on the ground. Blackout. The lights come up again; the woman stokes a fire, the wind howls and the trees crash. Blackout. The Woods continues on this ragged and abrupt trajectory creating a searing and powerful piece of new writing which leaves the audience spellbound and shell-shocked throughout.
Playwright Robert Alan Evans employs a sporadic chronology throughout his ninety-minute piece, echoed dramaturgically in the fitful and feverish sleep of Boy (played by Finn Bennett). The audience are taken on a relentless rampage through a mother’s psyche in a fascinating and painful exploration of postpartum depression.
The rawness of the subject matter is reflected perfectly in Naomi Dawson’s production design; bark chippings litter the floor and tall trees surround a stark and derelict cabin, covered in ragged tarpaulin. This post-apocalyptic feel is continued throughout the piece as the audience witness a mother’s post-apocalypse and the decimation of domesticity. The stage is strewn with the detritus of an infant; an old toy, a deflated balloon and a tiny cardigan haunt the woods.
A small window into domesticity juxtaposes this desolate forest clearing; a clinically pristine kitchen transcends the stage offering a bright oasis of tranquillity and normality above the primal hopelessness of the woods below.
This entire production contains a brutal sensuality; flames gently lick the inside of a can leaving a comforting smell of wood smoke that is quickly replaced by the harsh smell of petrol as fire engulfs the cabin. This is accompanied by a diegetic soundtrack; as the flames hiss, the spectator hears pattering rain, howling wind and clattering hooves.
Throughout, the performances are mesmerising; Lesley Sharp is extraordinary as Woman, encapsulating a harrowing and gritty vulnerability. Tom Mothersdale also excels as Wolf, bringing dark humour and surrealism to a taunting and twisted allegorical figure.
The Woods is primarily so unsettling and powerful due to the synergy between all production elements. Robert Alan Evans masterfully creates complex characters and employs unorthodox structure. This is complimented and enhanced by Lucy Morrison’s bold directorial choices; she constantly plays with the tempo, texture and tone of the production.
The result is jarring layer upon jarring layer; The Woods is a ruthless allegory for the complexity of mental health. Not a single spectator could declare with confidence that they fully understand The Woods, but merely to be lost there is an utter privilege.
The Woods runs at the Royal Court Theatre until Saturday 20th October
Image © Manuel Harlan, The Royal Court