This production of The Woods, one of David Mamet’s earlier plays, at the Southwark Playhouse is directed by Russell Bolam, with Francesca Carpanini as Ruth and Sam Frenchum as Nick.
Russell Bolam has done a great job of bringing this play back to the stage
Nick has arranged for him and his new girlfriend Ruth to go for a romantic weekend away at his family’s remote lodge in the woods.
The action is all played out on the veranda over three acts: dusk, night, and morning and explores the breakdown in trust between two people who have allowed intimacy to race ahead of familiarity. During the night, both characters find themselves pushed to the outer limits of their capabilities as human beings - both of them groping for some external narrative or myth that might give them a meaning or purpose beyond the smallness of their lives and the limitations caused by their personal adequacies. By act 3 they reach a fully blown existential crisis, with Nick crying out, "Why are we here?"
Act one is largely narrative - almost as if the play is happening elsewhere, and we are hearing tales from other times and other places. At this point, we should start to feel the real drama happening in undercurrent on stage, although it seems that this has not been layered sufficiently, so I found myself sitting and listening to quite a lot of straightforward narration.
The play proper begins in act 2, and reaches its rather violent climax in act 3 when we discover what is really going on inside the heads of these two people and the expectations they have of each other.
Ruth is deftly played by Francesca Carpanini. For most of the play, she is intensely needy and irritating - grating even - making Nick wonder why he suggested coming away with her in the first place. But later, when his true intentions are laid bare, we see a more solid sense of self in her. And finally, when he is at his most vulnerable, we see the depths of her wisdom and empathy.
Nick attempts to connect himself to local and family mythologies in order to tap into the masculine energy of the wilderness - trying to reach for something much greater than himself.
Sam Frenchum plays the part with charisma, revealing to us Nick's dynamism and sometimes his bewilderment. In fact, Nick is often confused by Ruth’s increasingly desperate line of enquiry - sometimes responding with a simple, "I dunno". And as the weekend progresses, we realise that he is more anxious and vulnerable than he is prepared to show.
Nick’s needs are apparently simple, and short term and we also realise that Ruth is not the first girlfriend to have been brought away to the family lodge for a weekend. I found myself wondering whether this play might function better if Nick were played with a little more 1970s machismo than Sam Frenchum’s slightly modern portrayal allows.
In fact, overall, the play's sexual dynamics do feel rather dated. In this play, the female character, although written with complexity and performed with great skill, is mostly called upon to be reactive to the needs of the man. And the man, in spite of his violence, his sense of entitlement and his emotional inarticulacy - is somehow deserving of forgiveness and understanding by the end of the play.
Russell Bolam has done a great job of bringing this play back to the stage, and it’s good to go and see it even if it’s just to realise that it could not be written in 2022.