Theatre review: The Woods
Following vicious reviews, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet banned New York productions of his 1977 play — a ban that would last from 1985 to 1996; he felt that “people do not understand The Woods very well”.
Now, more than 30 years later, however, it seems to have seen far better fortunes: revivals of the play have attracted wonderfully positive responses so far, and — if Laurence Strangio’s staging is anything to go by — I am beginning to think it is perhaps not hard to see why.
Nick and Ruth are a pair of young lovers who have gone away for a few days to Nick’s country cabin in the woods. She is sentimental, idealistic and innocent — openly relishing each other’s company in the “purity” of their surroundings, away from the menace of city living — while he is pessimistic, haunted, and saturnine, preferring instead to emphasise the wet weather, and the consequent coldness of the cabin.
After physical desires have been gratified, their differences become ever more patent, and what they each want all the more divergent. And so, when Ruth presents Nick with a gift that signifies a lifetime of togetherness, all these bubble over.
This is an archetypal love story in which the woman’s dream is to live ‘happily-ever-after’, when the man is still grappling with his fear of commitment and of responsibility: a “pagan vow” he declares derisively, when she reminisces how her grandmother used to cherish her own marriage pledge.
Despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the incipient ‘coming out’ of homosexuality already evident at the time of the play, Mamet has chosen to portray the steroetypes of women as being the party more ready to settle down, and of men as the more skittish and uncertain.
Still, whatever the gender, or sexual orientation, the story is a universal one of human relationships, our struggles with them, manipulations by them, but perhaps, more crucially, our helpless need for them.
What holds it back from being a more recognised play is the very style and language that make engaging with these relatable issues problematic. In a yawning, discursive way, the characters’ banal, small talk is at times desperately exasperating, with little substance for the audience to grasp on to.
Lines that conjure images about nature around them — crickets, birds, fish, herrons, and raccoons — fail to add to the narrative (apart from the seagull of Ruth’s opening lines that flaps vigorously at other gulls in defence of its own solitude). And stories that the pair tell each other — the bear returning to her cave over which the cabin has been built, the man kidnapped and released by Martians, children losing their way in the forest — only go on to fuel the euphemistic mystique.
Mamet seems to want us to savour the sound of his words. He gives us plenty of long pauses to roll them about in our heads, to create the poetry he wills us to hear: the “falling, falling, falling” of the grandmother’s bracelet, “shoosh, shoosh, shoosh’ of the rowboat on the sand, “chirp, chirp, chirp chirp” of the birds. If they haven’t yet sent some of us to sleep, that is.
Thankfully, Strangio’s staging strips Mamet’s play (as best it could) of any more pretensions. In Mattea Davies’ superlative design — an intricate lacework of branches, twigs, fawn fabric and crunchy dry leaves — Strangio’s characters are the every day people we know or know about: they are our friends, our family, our colleagues, indeed, ourselves.
Natasha Jacobs’ Ruth, while more loquacious than Nick, does not come across as whingeing or annoying, as some productions have made the role out to be; here, she is the girl filled with illusions of romance — sometimes maternally assuring, sometimes sweetly content — only to be bitterly disappointed by hard realities.
Gabriel Partington, as Nick, albeit more affected, shows us how fear translates to confusion that in turn transmutes to physical aggression and psychological abuse. Alternating between torpor and brief bursts of energy, he catches both the cruel arrogance and the vulnerability of the character.
In spite or probably because of the inertia in the first act (dark harbingers, notwithstanding), there are a couple of scenes in the second act that struck momentary panic in my heart, as I made an unexpected grab for my hapless, unexcited companion.
This is ultimately a bleak, poignant portrait of human relations, a tale that meditates on the imperfections of this thing that underlies our fundamental existence, even in the seemingly perfect, unadulterated environment of The Woods.