In the same month two plays have opened in London both 90-minutes long and both using the same analogy for the knotty complexities of love and relationships with both culminating in some form of male violence. But while the world premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Forest at Hampstead Theatre used its allegorical title well, capturing the sudden density of circumstances as protagonist Pierre becomes increasingly lost in the mess he may have created, Southwark Playhouse’s revival of David Mamet’s The Woods only ever skims across the surface of characters Ruth and Nick in a talky drama that fails to say very much.
Written in 1977, the play received a mauling when it opened in New York a couple of years later and during the 1980s further performances were banned by the writer. It hasn’t been seen in the UK for over 20-years and it seems a curious decision to revive it now despite its attempts to engage with notions of sexual politics and the desire for a cleaner, simpler country lifestyle that many craved during the pandemic. Yet, The Woods feels decidedly old-fashioned in style and structure, using its characters as ciphers for Mamet’s abstract conclusions about relationships between men and women.
Mamet’s very best work focuses entirely on masculinity and the sometimes toxic competitiveness that exists between them particularly in capitalist environments. Glengarry Glen Ross remains a modern classic with a West End revival and tour directed by Sam Yates reminding us what a crisp and skewering writer Mamet could be. Similarly a 2015 production of American Buffalo with Damian Lewis and John Goodman was equally insightful about the egotism of men in a small junk shop grappling with their need for space and recognition. But Mamet has been on far shakier ground with female characters some of whose depictions have been laced with misogyny – the tasteless comedy of Bitter Wheat a case in point.
The Woods is a puzzling piece, naturalistic in setting but frustratingly elusive in purpose with thinly drawn characters who talk in bold phrases but never reveal a single personal thing about themselves or their lives, making it hard to believe in them as real people and even harder to care about a single thing they say or do. Ostensibly an Adam and Eve metaphor, Ruth and Nick are taken on a troubling path through the story, a relationship deteriorating in microcosm in the space of one night.
Mamet greatly admired and even wrote to Harold Pinter so throughout The Woods you can see Mamet feeling for that same kind of abstracted otherness, trying to reach a similar place where reality shifts very slightly to create a heightened intensity where ominous overtones of threat or danger shape the plot. That Mamet doesn’t get anywhere near the tonal precision and linguistic specificity of Pinter is the great tragedy of The Woods and make it an unsatisfactory experience.
Part of the issue is the very literal staging the story demands, set on the porch of a cabin in a very visible, tangible wood. It creates the feel for nature that peppers the text, referencing various creatures the couple see but unlike Zeller’s treeless The Forest designed by Anna Fleischle, Mamet’s play in comparison feels too heavy-handed, hammering home the metaphor of relationships being like a forest by setting the story in a real wood. A more representative hinterland could have drawn out those Pinter-esque tonal shifts but even in Russell Bolam’s new production for the Southwark Playhouse, Anthony Lamble’s otherwise pleasant log shack feels far too literal for the unnatural dialogue.
Mamet gives us nothing at all to go on when it comes to introducing Ruth and Nick to the audience; we learn little about them as individuals, not how long they have been together, what either of them do in the mythical ‘city’ they refer to or how they met. They never mention friends they have in common, they have no hobbies or interests other than going for walks, sex or holding each other, suggestions which recur throughout the play, and the factual basis for their existence is entirely withheld, leaving the audience to form an understanding of who they are only from the things they say.
However, both characters talk in repetitively bland, almost entirely meaningless phrases about the difficulties of self-knowledge, proclamations about how ‘clean’ the air is in the country, the cawing of gulls and vagaries about their feelings for one another. The first Act primarily establishes their seemingly unequal love and investment in their relationship, an emotional connection that is almost constantly spoken about by Ruth who spends much of this initial scene reassuring Nick of his sexual allure, skittering between stories connected to the woods including a Martian visit and war service and Ruth’s constant, almost possessive need to touch Nick.
There are hints, even here, that Nick is stereotypically afraid of commitment, not recoiling from Ruth but detached and less willing to discuss his feelings or even finding any obvious enjoyment in being at his cabin with her. By Act Two set late the same night, that frustration has expanded as a somewhat laboured, storm approaches which reveals Nick’s fear, resulting in what seems to be a clear sexual assault although this is not how Ruth reacts to it. With an ensuing conversation about other partners that Nick has brought to the cabin, Mamet treads a gendered line in which his archetypal male protagonist either wants sex or to be left in peace while his female avatar talks of love and commitment while actively encouraging the sexual bravura of her partner, even reassuring him after he attacks her.
The result is a confusing piece that builds to moments of violence which it is then overly casual about. Ruth fights back and threatens to leave, even going so far as packing her bags, but Mamet makes this feel part of the game, the audience and the central couple knowing that there is more to come and drastically undermining her surface decisiveness. But there is nothing underneath and The Woods feels like a series of empty gestures that offer-up a plot of sorts with no emotional basis for either character’s behaviour or as a way to demarcate the power shifts that happen along the way, leaving the once strong and silent Nick strangely infantilised. How and why is rooted in morning-after guilt but there is so little credibility in the picture Mamet has painted that the audience cannot grasp why the fate of these characters, shackled together for a brutal eternity in the woods, is a symbol of whatever point Mamet is making about relationships. And given his recent comments in The Guardian that the natural urge in men is for sex and in women to have babies, this is not a particularly nuanced understanding of gender.
Bolam’s production for Southwark Playhouse doesn’t really resolve any of these ambiguities or issues within the text and suffers as a result. There is an attempt to give Ruth greater agency and control of her body than the play allows through moments of reaction and a firmer, more controlled tone to her speeches, but despite flashes of intensity between the warring pair, the play’s shortcomings cannot be concealed. It is a small, intimate space that should be filled with the play’s emotional contortions but lacking those Bolam uses the porch front and small area of garden to move the actors around as much as possible, making dizzying use of the space as they march infeasibly from bench to tree stump to cabin trying to inject some physical energy into a lacklustre debate.
There is notably very little music even between scenes, only soundscaping designed Ali Taie who provides woodland sounds and some low thrumming in the blackouts between the Acts. However, with so little atmosphere in Mamet’s text, the prudent use of composition might have been helpful in setting the scene or representing the darkening tone as the mood shifts, and it seems a shame not to have used more sound, even thunder to match Bethany Gupwell’s lightening, to lift the piece and it give it a bit of drive.
Francesca Carpanini does what she can with Ruth and probably has the best of it in terms of giving the character what little purpose exists for her in the script. And although the cadence of her American accent means the delivery becomes a little samey, Ruth moves from being annoyingly affectionate, overly tactile and almost smothering to a more forceful partner unwilling to easily concede to Nick’s demanding behaviour. Carpanini gives Ruth as much emotional complexity as she can given the two-dimensional characterisation but it becomes increasingly interesting to watch her transition from romantic idyll to grubby brawl as the story moves on.
Sam Frenchum has almost no room for manoeuvre with Nick who becomes increasingly less sympathetic. There are lots of loose ends that Mamet never resolves including a recurring dream about a bear, trouble sleeping and a seemingly equal distaste for town and country that plague Nick, nor are there any explanations or remorse for his acts of aggression that violate his girlfriend so Frenchum has an uphill battle to keep the audience interested in Nick for 90-minutes. He does and that is to Frenchum’s credit but its a thankless task.
There are plenty of plays that chart the rapid decline of romantic and other relationships in just a few hours and many of them like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage do it much better than The Woods. Advertised as a ‘battle of the sexes’ play, it’s not nearly as light or as entertaining as that phrase suggests. With stylised dialogue, questionable gender politics and a too literal setting, The Woods gets rather lost in itself, and with very few contemporary insights to offer, it’s a wonder that Mamet’s duologue has been revived at all.