It was a dark and stormy night and, just like every pirate story invented to scare the children about the perils of the high seas, something isn’t quite right. Tempestuous from the beginning, In a Forest, Dark and Deep tells the story of two siblings not on the best possible terms but with nobody else to rely on they fall together again and their ritual aggression begins to wear away at the façade very quickly indeed.
Before the curtains go up the play is aggressive: loud and heavy music is played through the sound system and fills the auditorium, making it sound like a heavy rock concert while the harrowing silhouettes of the trees hang over the stage. When the action begins it is indeed a stormy setting, the flashes and crashes of the thunder and lightning well visualised and effective. Matthew Fox soon enters after a violent tussle with a hapless door, his six-pack of beer already begun and the volatile nature of his character evident from the off. I’m happy to say he doesn’t drop the ball for the duration of the show, sustaining a perpetual intensity that must have been draining. His work on capturing the nuances between brother and sister was perhaps the better of the two, his turns from anger to joking to jealousy to familiar arguments being natural and seamless.
Olivia Williams was also very good. Her character was a hard one to play, the number of lies she was in the habit of telling was hard to keep up with even if the underlying truth was simple. I did feel as though her performance forgot this underlying truth for the most part and so when it was finally revealed I was grateful it was so predictable because there wasn’t much leading us there from the character’s side of the coin.
The script was somewhat laboured throughout. The points that it tried to bring up, particularly the reinforcement of the sibling relationship and the digging up of old grievances, began to drag before the end. It wasn’t as bad as being beaten over the head with a hunk of dead meat but it was obvious enough to disable the play’s ability to construct a reality that I could buy in to.
The plot developed with a predictable consistency and familiar pattern. The final revelation was predictable from about halfway through and was not surprising. The only surprise was the inclusion of a moment where Bobby reveals less than appropriate feelings for his sister, only for this incestuous urge to be dismissed without being fully explored. Surprising? Yes. Effective? No. This is typical of the script in general. It feels like it’s trying to do a job other than tell the story and because there isn’t much of a story being told the audience aren’t invested enough to allow anything else to happen.
Admitting Neil LaBute’s mastery of the craft may be one thing but it doesn’t ensure that he has the Midas touch or that under every heavy-handed line there’s some hidden treasure waiting for the pirate corps to raid it. I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole thing that the developments were excuses to allow the portrayal of the aggressive and violent relationship but we didn’t see enough of that relationship to make it worth it. Instead of thinking throughout the show how awful their respective situations were or caring about the characters in any way I found myself sitting there growing more and more frustrated with the fact that they weren’t packing any of the books up. Everything seemed to hinge on very delicate and dubious premises.
All the marketing for the show focused heavily on the fact that the two actors were Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams. The production photos are studio photographs of them not even in character and even in the poster image it feels like they’re just there, showing who they are as actors as there isn’t much between them to demonstrate character. This was a flaw in the production that I think pervades the whole show. There is too much reliance on the actors and I think in this case Neil LaBute would have done a better job not directing his own work.
Having said that, the directing was not at all bad. I thought that throughout they could and would have been doing more work than they were and more would have been going on. A few moments and exchanges were annoyingly poorly developed with average and predictable blocking but with such an intensity being put into finding something worth showing in the characters I can almost forgive that.
This production is good to watch but only because of its length. Any more and I would have given it a harsher review, unless the more time was spent in better plot development and creating more relatable characters. I think that this show lost its way a little bit. Perhaps the small cast and the dual roles of writer and director for Neil LaBute meant that there weren’t enough different pairs of eyes and more impartial judges over the rehearsal period and the result is a predictable and monotonous show without much genuine intensity and no balance at all as well as a bland premise and characters it’s very hard to relate to. I would say worth seeing, but not for the ticket prices they’re asking. Maybe half. If you want to see a predictable show about lying where the acting is far better, you best go see The Children’s Hour instead.
Written by Neil LaBute; Directed by Neil LaBute; at the Vaudeville Theatre; Starring Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams; Runs from 03 March 11 - 04 June 11.
John Ord (08/03/2011)