Relax and enjoy the welcome extended to guests at the local infants’ school which Michele Austin delivers with considerable warmth and obvious delight. Feel proud to be part of a community in which people care for each other and members cherish the stability they have created for the safety and well-being of all and where that is celebrated in traditional festivals by families who have known each other for generations. There will be no more moments like it. All is about to change, as a simple act of childhood naivety burgeons into the most harrowing tale of a man chillingly destroyed by a gullible community.
Emotionally draining yet deeply rewarding.
David Farr’s lean adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s and Tobias Lindholm’s film Jagten is now The Hunt at the Almeida. It is the tale of Lucas (Tobia Menzies), a devoted and highly professional teacher. He has a warm heart, but can appear distant, something of a loner, apart from his participation in hunting expeditions and the rites of his local lodge, of which, in traditional Danish style, he is a member. His expectation that his teenage son will soon leave his estranged wife and come to live with him is dashed by the events in which he becomes embroiled. Similarly the peaceful lives of a closely knit community are thrown into turmoil. Ironically, the dysfunctional couple, whose daughter is at the centre of the accusation against him, are brought together and attempt to resolve their differences as they struggle to cope with the implications of their daughter’s alleged traumatic experience at the hands of their dear friend.
The play abounds in questions, not only as part of the script, but for the audience to resolve as well. How could anyone doubt the girl? How would she know about such things if they didn’t happen? (Here we know something the villagers do not!). Yet, who could believe Lucas was capable of something like that? Why doesn’t he try harder to defend himself against the growing accusations? The answers are bound up in a complex web of being too young as a child to appreciate the consequences of one’s actions, of being frightened to change your story, of ‘helpful’ adult questioning and pressure, of a willingness to believe the worst and the complex psyche of a man whose insularity and introversion are so deeply rooted in his own upbringing that he is unable to put up a fight.
Rupert Goold’s direction accentuates the precisely delineated scenes that incrementally build the story and imbues the naturalism of the play with a hint of surrealism. Evie Guerney’s costumes evoke the time and place yet Steve Gregory’s grand animal masks suggest haunting eeriness and mysterious powers lurking in the forest. Neil Austin provides comforting lighting for home and school but the cold neon strip and stark steel that come and go suggest all is not well. Es Devlin’s house-like shell dominates the stage. It can be both transparent and completely darkened. It serves as a house, an office, a cell, an interrogation room, a party venue, a haven, a hunting lodge and ritual space that accommodates the visible and the hidden, perched on the revolve that turns in harmony with the twists of the story.
Playing against this backdrop Menzies gives a riveting and heartbreaking performance. The tension he creates is palpable and we suffer with him as Lucas’ tragedy unfolds. He has plenty to play off in the fine performances that characterise this production. Five children rotate the roles of pupils Clara and Peter. Abbiegail Mills and George Nearn Stuart took up the roles on this occasion. Both demonstrate delightful innocence and the fun of childhood yet she also assumed an air of mystique at times, suggesting that she was more awareness of the situation than she admitted. Poppy Miller and Justin Salinger, as her parents Mikala and Theo, finely manage the transition from argumentative, bickering individuals, unable to manage life together, into a couple united by circumstances and forced to find common ground. Stuart Campbell makes a long-awaited appearance as Lucas’ son, Marcus. He pads out the post-divorce story but most potently asserts the bond between father and son and the challenge of coming to terms with yet another emotional disaster.
The idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty is turned on its head in The Hunt, along with many other popular notions. In a world increasingly accustomed to legitimate revelations of abuse this play takes a microscope to the impact of false claims and accusations on individuals and communities. In so doing it provides an emotionally draining yet deeply rewarding experience.