thu 25/04/2024

The Woods, Royal Court review - Lesley Sharp triumphs again | reviews, news & interviews

The Woods, Royal Court review - Lesley Sharp triumphs again

The Woods, Royal Court review - Lesley Sharp triumphs again

Overwhelmingly powerful new play about motherhood and psychological collapse

Unbreakable bond: Tom Mothersdale and Lesley Sharp in ‘The Woods’.Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Blackout. Dark, the colour of childhood fear. Black, the colour of despair. Black. No light visible; no colours to see. Just pitch black, maybe even bible black. This is how Robert Alan Evans’s The Woods, which stars the brilliant Lesley Sharp and which opened tonight in the Royal Court’s theatre upstairs, begins – in total darkness.

Followed by images of desolation, the sound of torrential rain, the devastation of a falling tree. In the crepuscular gloom, the story begins to unfold. Little light visible; few colours to see. But the weird atmosphere is just about to get weirder. Luckily, Sharp will guide us through.

As the light, like dawn, advances, a bleak wood somewhere in the wilds of America is revealed. In it, a lonely Woman (Sharp) struggles to survive in a shack. Yes, a wooden shack. Winds blow, rains pour down and winter grips the land. Amid the leafless trees, she comes across a Boy, a young man who’s trapped in the snow, and she brings him in, and mothers him. Soon a lone Wolf circles her shack. But who is he? Not an animal, but a man, and a man who torments her. Perhaps he’s her son. Perhaps he’s her conscience. And who is she anyway, and what is she doing, wearing a flimsy dirty dress, and hanging out in a dirty old shack?

This is a subjective
account of reality

We are so habituated to naturalistic drama, where what you see is what you get, that it takes a little while to get your bearings in a play that is not an objective, but a subjective account of reality. Despite all the clues – no snow, the Woman’s clothes, threatening trees – minutes pass before we realise that this is no ordinary story. Instead, it’s a metaphor-rich reading of a psychological situation, an ambient account of mental collapse, with an early clue showing us the cause of distress: a brightly lit kitchen appears on one side of the stage, all pristine white and high tech, and there on the shiny surface is a baby monitor, whose bright red light pulses and from which come the sounds of a baby in distress.

It’s never comfortable to be inside the head of a distressed individual but Sharp, in what is surely one of the most extraordinarily intense performances on the London stage at the moment, takes us by the hand, comforting us even while she also upsets us. As we journey from Survivalist America to some more familiar corner of England, she shows us how to care, with what can only be described as tough love, for a foundling child while standing up, more or less, to an enraged son, a wolf in wolf’s clothing. When the story veers into sheer terror, we hope that she will make it. We root for her. In this symbolic fable, which like a child’s story nods to Little Red Riding Hood and like a Greek tragedy to Medea, a powerful image of unwilling motherhood imprints itself on our minds.

As if in some Beckettian no-place, we find ourselves watching the Mother gathering wood, building a fire, tending her Boy. At one point, the stage blazes with yellow heat. The Wolf comes and goes, his clothing changing, and as the story metamorphosizes from the wild land to the more familiar terrain of car park, playground and service station, other threats appear. Local lads abuse and bully the Woman, a service worker voices his resentment against society and a mental-hospital doctor tries to assess her condition. In this world of fractured memory and psychological pain, there are few safe places. And, when you find them, they are only temporary. All this is beautifully and hauntingly brought out in Lucy Morrison’s astonishingly powerful production, designed by Naomi Dawson.

On the night that I saw this 90-minute show, a fire alarm went off about a third of the way through and we had to evacuate the building. Despite this distraction, the actors resumed half an hour later, almost seamlessly, a testament to their skill, courage and commitment. Sharp, of course, is utterly convincing in one of the most taxing and difficult roles you can image, being onstage for the whole of the show and showing her character’s pains, delusions and fantasies with immensely deep humanity. It’s also a masterclass in showing how you can visibly age in front of a live audience. Yes, she is that good. And well supported by Tom Mothersdale as the sinister Wolf, Charles Furness as an aggressive bully and Finn Bennett, making his stage debut, as the Boy (both pictured above with Sharp). This is a blazingly acted and triumphantly imagined piece of new writing.

Sharp takes us by the hand, comforting us even while she also upsets us


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters