Rhiannon D’Averc reviews The Hunt, now playing at the Almeida theatre.
A woman walks onto the stage and welcomes us all to the theatre. She makes a quip about the heavy winds which are, indeed, plaguing the streets outside. This must be some kind of announcement from the theatre – a request to turn off our mobile phones, to not film the performance…
Wait, but what was that about fallen trees? And a path home through the forest?
Aha – this is not an address to the audience of a play. It is aimed at the proud parents of the children of the Sunbeam school, who are putting on a performance for the Harvest Festival.
And we’re in.
Throughout the performance of The Hunt, a wood and plastic structure stands on a rotating part of the stage. It is a home; a school classroom; a hunting lodge; and at times, it is even the outdoors, inverting the stage and making the outside, in.
This forms a large basis of the staging, with all manner of tricks of lighting and dry ice transforming this unassuming structure into whatever it needs to be. At times, it is impossible to see within. At others, all too clear. And at still other times, a mythic creature – a man with the head of a stag’s skull – inhabits a whirling fog to be seen or not seen at will.
Intervals of song break up the modern setting of the performance with something primal – the men could easily be chanting war cries, or reminiscing on old Viking raids. This is a real men’s club, the hunting lodge where boys are initiated into adulthood, and we soon dive in to their rituals. Quite literally so, as the male cast members appear to emerge onto the set for the first time out of a swimming hole cut into the ice.
Around this age-old setting of camaraderie, however, is the thoroughly ‘now’ of a primary school where the failure to remove a video from the browser history of an old phone sets terrible events into motion.
The script is packed with humour from the start, which is a good job: otherwise, it might all appear a bit too bleak. There is an ongoing build-up of tension and apprehension, as the story goes from bad to worse for our protagonist. So much so that, making notes in my Moleskine, I ended up writing “OH NO” in capital letters over and over again after the interval.
The plot is, for the most part, laid out clearly after the first act. You can see what will happen. Perhaps it is even more terrible for the fact that it does. As the audience, we feel this sickening sensation of a man’s life falling apart right in front of him – and there is nothing he, or we, can do about it.
Tackling the topic of child abuse – and on the other side, the righteous anger a community can bring to bear even when an accusation has not been proven – is not for the faint-hearted. Here, it is done exceedingly well. Your heart is in your mouth at times, and you feel desperately for the players on stage. The well-meaning teacher who truly did nothing wrong; the heartbroken parents who feel that it just might have been their fault that their daughter is damaged; the son who believes in his father against all odds.
In a production which includes both child actors and a live dog – the two classic things we are warned against – everything comes together extremely well. The timing is done to perfection: a pamphlet shoved into a pocket and hidden just as the topic comes up in conversation, for instance. The only wobbly moment comes in an on-stage fight which doesn’t feel quite believable – although the cast more than make up for it when descending into chaos, all crammed into the small hut (this time, a church).
The play is brutal. It is confrontational. It pulls very few punches, even with the child actors.
The wardrobe paints the picture perfectly of this small Norwegian town. The actors are dressed for the most part in apparel fit for hunting: plaid shirts, padding, dowdy layers of knitwear for the women, fur-lined boots, boots that look as though they have been worn for years already. They wear Fair Isle jumpers at Christmas, and the women wear their hair in practical yet pretty twists and plaits.
The appearance of Marcus, central character Lucas’ son, underlines the more fitted, simpler, and perhaps cooler attire of our main protagonists. We notice that they are cleaner, neater, maybe even better off than the other characters. They are ‘other’.
The lighting and sound are used to strong effect, particularly as we approach the climax. Flashes of light land the stage in darkness with frightening glimpses of action in-between, and booming and crashing sounds on irregular beats leave your heart pounding.
It all culminates in a scene in which the crashing soundtrack and flashing lights serve to remind us that – however safe our lives may seem – we’re only one moment away from becoming the hunted ourselves.
The Hunt, by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, adapted by David Farr and Rupert Goold. At the Almeida 17 June – 3 August 2019.