Friday 26 July 2019

The Hunt at the Almeida, or, Focused on the Wrong Story

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 15th July 2019.

This is the second London play in recent months focused on child sexual abuse. As an exploration of that subject it is less effective than the recent Downstate at the National which in turn was less effective than David Harrower's superb EIF commission Blackbird back in 2005. However, there is also a second narrative here exploring how Tobias Menzies (Lucas) interacts, or struggles to interact, emotionally with others. Menzies's character in this regard is a type of man I feel we don't see that often on stage, and in the rare moments of stillness and character-led drama his struggle really moves. Would that the play had focused on that narrative.

Instead, of course, this adaptation of a Danish film (I haven't seen the original so can't comment on how convincing it is by comparison) is primarily concerned with the accusation of abuse and the community's reaction to it. I have no idea whether such an accusation would play out in this way in reality, all I can say is that the play pretty much failed to convince me that it would. The child's accusation is treated unquestioningly - indeed it is difficult not to feel that the first investigator manipulates the alleged victim by his approach to questioning. The inadequacy of the process in relation to the accused struck me forcefully and, as tensions rise, the complete absence of police protection for an accused whose vulnerability is evident for some time before the increasingly deranged community acts just does not convince.

The flaws in the set up are not helped by a typically overblown production from Rupert Goold. I've rarely felt that Goold is really at home in the Almeida space - and the square raised playing area with circular revolve in the centre again feels oddly juxtaposed to the surrounding auditorium, at least from an aisle seat on the Circle centre block. The stage is mostly bare apart from a hut-like construction in the centre with glass which can, as needed, block the view of the interior. I suppose Goold and designer Ez Devlin were going for an IKEA-style Scandinavian look. We are however supposed to be in rural Scandinavia surrounded by forest and the production failed to convince me that we were. Goold overuses the revolve and the house effect to little end. There's also a lot of periodical tiresome running in circles by various members of the ensemble. The apparent lynch mob with burning torches who then do not lynch or burn and the cast members with antlered deer heads I'm afraid just made me laugh. The overall effect of all this busyness was, paradoxically, to slow the pace and to remove rather than ratchet up the tension. There is a very unpleasant scene late on involving a gun but the tension and threat here arise primarily from the simple presence of the gun and not as a result of a build up through the piece as a whole - I didn't feel the moment was really earned. It also involves an act of foolishness on the part of the man originally holding the gun which recalls a similar unconvincing decision involving a baseball bat in the Donmar's recent Sweat.

And yet there are moments when a completely different drama seems to be playing out. Most striking is the scene between Menzies and his son (Stuart Campbell) - leaving aside the bizarre decision to play the son as a Scot without any suggestion that either parent is Scottish. Here Goold finds that power in touch or the absence of it, in silence or the struggle to speak which I still think makes the greatest theatre. When Menzies breaks down and has to hide his face and you watch the son hesitating as to whether to touch his father in comfort it's very moving. Part of the power, for me at least, linked back to earlier exchanges between Menzies and the estranged wife we never see, exchanges which conjure a marriage in which two people have profoundly different emotional registers and their relationship has been destroyed by it - this struck a particularly personal chord. I don't feel we see men in failing marriages represented in that way that often on stage.

The rest of the ensemble work hard but aren't always given a lot to work with by the script. Whichever of the children were on stage both gave strong performances.

Overall, this is worth seeing for Menzies's performance. From his bio it looks as if I may have seen him in a couple of other things, but those earlier roles had not stuck in my mind. After this I would certainly make a point of seeing him in other shows. This show also does have something interesting to say about men and relationships, only that isn't the story it thinks it is telling.

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