A CurtainUp London Review
The play opens with head teacher Hilde (Michele Austin) welcoming the community to a harvest festival at Sunbeam Infants school, paying credit to all and especially to the new teacher Lucas (Tobias Menzies). Then, in the central structure of the set, a glass box with a pointed roof delineated with neon tubes, men naked from the waist up, many of them bearded and overweight, perform a kind of Danish version of the New Zealand Haka, a song and aggressive war dance of primitive warriors.
Cut to Lucas tidying up building bricks after class when Hilde asks him to stay with two children whose parents are late in picking them up. They are six year olds, Peter (George Nearn Stuart) and Clara (Abbiegail Mills). It appears that Clara's parents Mikala and Theo are frequently late collecting her, three times already this week. Clara, a sensitive child, is obsessive about not walking on the lines and Lucas has seen her walking to school on her own, not looking up or around her for fear of stepping on a line. When her mother and father (Justin Salinger and Poppy Miller) eventually arrive they argue non stop blaming each other for being late. We sense the child's distress.
Lucas is separated from his wife and living apart from her and his teenage son Marcus (an assured performance from Stuart Campbell). Lucas is a member of the local hunting lodge where there is as much drinking and carousing as shooting. As these primeval traits are exposed we see men with stag's skeleton heads and antlers appear from the mist inside the glass case.
When Clara tells Hilde that Lucas exposed himself to her, safeguarding kicks in and things get very nasty for Lucas. Safeguarding rules don't allow the accused to know what he is accused of while an investigation takes place and safeguarding rules trump every employee right making these cases hard to defend. In this case, despite Hilde's protests the person in charge of safeguarding, an accountant, Per (Howard Ward) makes it far worse by getting Clara to nod at suggestions he has made up which further implicate Lucas. The play falls down for me at this point because I find it impossible to believe that a child would be interviewed without a parent present.
Lucas is suspended and the news leaks out to the community. Three more children come forward claiming he has abused them and then confirmation bias kicks in with the community finding reasons to explain his assumed predatory behaviour.
It is a difficult play which I found uncomfortable to watch because of course we must take a child's accusations seriously and listen to children, but it is simply terrible for someone to be unjustly accused. There are some obvious visual clues about this tight knit group. As the meeting to discuss the situation with parents, a man is sharpening his knives ready for a deer hunt. There is more sinister, rowdy and ritualistic beer drinking behaviour among the men with more stag centaurs.
A tense climax arises but I cannot divulge any more. This play is well directed by Rupert Goold and believably, raising conflicting issues of balanced right and wrong, as well as stubborn and irrational prejudice. Tobias Menzies is outstanding as a man not used to sharing his emotions who finds himself isolated and vilified. Is there something about threatening our children that brings out brutality in these men who happily discuss a situation where there are no women, whether they would choose bestiality or celibacy?
I liked too the performances from Michele Austin as the Headteacher and Poppy Miller as Clara's mother who is shocked to discover what has happened to her daughter at the hands of a friend. The children too, Abbiegail Mills and George Nearn Stuart on the night I saw are exceptionally good young actors, natural and with just the right amount of diffidence.
Es Devlin's set contains within the Perspex box the community fervour often leaving Lucas on the outside with only the companionship of his dog, a Norwegian Elkhound. Neil Austin's lighting adds to the sense of place and drama.
The Hunt is an unsettling production, well acted and directed.
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Written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Adapted by David Farr
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring: Michele Austin, Stuart Campbell, Tobias Menzies, Poppy Miller, Justin Salinger, Howard Ward, Abbiegail Mills, George Nearn Stuart
With: Adrian der Gregorian, Keith Higham, Danny Kirrane, Itoya Osagiede, Jethro Skinner, Taya Tower, Florence White, Harrison Houghton
Set Design: Es Devlin
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound and Composer: Adam Cork
Movement: Botis Seva
Costume: Evie Gurney
Running time: Two hours 05 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 3rd August 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th June 2019 evening performance at The Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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