David Mamet's battle of the sexes play The Woods gets its first UK revival in 25 years. First seen in 1977, you can now catch it for a limited time at London's Southwark Playhouse.
Directed by Russell Bolam, this two-hander sees a couple spending a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. That might sound like the setup for a horror but what unfolds instead is an in depth look into masculinity and femininity as the couple battle it out with all their differences, never quite landing on the same page.
Sam Frenchum plays Nick in an understated performance full of quiet sometimes single word answers. While this has the danger to become monotonous after a while, Frenchum's acting always ensures this never gets boring, and the moments where more emotion is expressed proves all the more riveting for it.
Francesca Carpanini is the polar opposite as Ruth, going on more of a character journey as she goes from adoration to resentment in a single moment. Her extreme reactions to Nicks ambivalence offer an authenticity rarely seen on stage. Making her UK debut, Carpanini gives a captivating performance in the role, demonstrating some truly brilliant acting.
Together, the pair don't really have chemistry - at least consistently, but that is the point of the show. The constant war of words and failure to be in the same moment means the hostility and ever-changing tone of the relationship leaps off the stage into the audience. Over the course of the evening, the relationship boils over leading to some truly intense scenes that can be quite uncomfortable to watch. It feels like serious issues are glossed over with a scene about sexual consent never fully explored in what feels like a real missed opportunity to add more depth and meaning to the play.
Played out over three acts over the space of one night, the action is fairly static in The Woods with the whole evening taking place on the porch of a summer house, designed by Anthony Lamble. This means we are reliant on the actors alone to keep the momentum up in what runs the danger of becoming dull and repetitive at times.
What lets the play down is its writing. One of Mamet's lesser known shows, it's easy to see why. The build up to anything happening takes too long, the dialogue can get repetitive and jarring as the play goes on and the resolution is quite unsatisfying. I left the theatre not sure I fully understood what I had just watched, but didn't feel like I would have got more from the show had I completely knew.
What saves this play is the acting. Watching Carpanini and Frenchum as Ruth and Nick is mesmerising at its best, confusing at other times, but always believable. Other themes may be trying to come to the forefront but these never quite land. The fact it hasn't been seen in the UK for so long shows it up for how outdated the attitudes are - while I'm not saying anything needs to be updated in the play as these are always the product of their time, I have seen other plays deal with dated subject matters much more successfully than this manages. There may be scarier evenings in The Woods, but as it goes this one is fairly dull and uneventful.
The Woods plays at Southwark Playhouse until March 26th. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Photos by Pamela Raith