Best of luck, says the man with the shotgun. Keep to the middle of the path. Listen to the woods. Follow the crows.
And off we go, through the gates, to sit in a big circle under a grand old tree, round the charcoaled remnants of a fire. ‘Sorrow’ caws my crow, who is wearing a black cape and carrying a distressed – almost filigreed – umbrella. My crow only seems to know one word: Sorrow. Others call out other words: Myrrh, Bones, Funeral, Dust. It’s a story in single-word exclamations. What’s the collective name for crows, I find myself thinking. A convocation? A charm? A chattering? A mustering? ‘Murder!’ cries a crow. Ah yes, murder… And here’s the evidence: a bundle of bones emerging from the charred wood are formed into a skeleton shape (of what is hard to tell) and puppeteered through the space, a sombre wake accompanied by a crow choir. Follow, follow, follow the crow.
Me and Sorrow and a herd of two-legged walkie-talkies tramp through the meadows and over to the manicured lawn in front of Felbrigg Hall, a gorgeous National Trust-managed stately home looking resplendent in the evening light. On the lawn are the Maids: clean, white, starched, straight-backed. A rod for your back is taken literally. Good little girls who cultivate roses and hold on to their noses. Inside the forest, they sing, is the garden. Inside the garden, our Home. Inside the Home, our Mother. And here she is! A white-haired, proud woman in jodhpurs riding upon a (real!) horse, galloping into the paddock. The girls carry on brushing the lawn until called to present themselves to Mother: Lavender, Willow, Hazel, Larch, Rowan. Rowan is a little gawky and awkward, but it is she who is entrusted with a gun – ‘Rowan with a rifle!’ mock the crows – and as the sun sets and the howl of the wolves is heard in the distance, sent out to hunt the beast.
And off we go again, into the woods, past the woodcutter carving meticulously sculpted rabbits and owls from lumps of wood, to another glade. Rowan is mute, and communicates with the shake of a little bell. (Clever! Her wordlessness aligns her with the beasts, and of course we can hear her working her way through the woods with her gun, even when we can’t see her.) She’s frightened but she finds her courage. She loses her fear – and loses her heart (and virginity) to a man-beast…
Stories of humans who couple with animals are rife in mythology – horses, swans, bears, and of course wolves feature in tales told by Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, and Celts. Further, stories that feature humans changed into beasts (and sometimes back again) are a mainstay of our fairy tale traditions. These myths and stories of people who are part-human and part-beast retain their resonance for us because they ask us to consider what it is that makes us human – and to ask if we can ever leave the beast inside us behind.
And indeed, these seem the very questions driving WildWorks, who plunder all the usual sources in their story of this Wolf’s Child – there are touches of Grimms and Perrault and Greek Myth and trickster tales, and the myth of Callisto (changed from nymph to bear) is cited as an inspiration by WildWorks’ director Bill Mitchell – but this mixed and mulched with research emerging from a collaboration with renowned animal behaviour specialists such as Shaun Ellis (who kept and lived with a pack of wolves in Devon), and the late Dr Chris Seeley, expert on bear behaviour.
The binary divide between inside and out – architecture versus wilderness, brick buildings versus cathedrals of trees – is represented by Mother and the Maids on the one hand, and the wolf pack on the other. The crows seem to sit in between – creatures who mix with ‘featherbrained’ humans, mocking our follies. Perhaps inevitably, the ‘civilised’ and controlled world of Mother reveals itself to be the most savage; and the ‘savage’ world of the wolves a warm and loving collective society. The young wolf child Thorn (as named by Mother, because she’s a bit prickly) is seen to be living an idyllic life of cuddles and tumbling games with the wolves; and by contrast is in a constant state of agitation when with the Maids. Sit down like a proper little girl, Thorn is admonished as she runs hither and thither. Use your words, no snarling or biting. In the distance, the wolves howl, calling her home (echoing Shaun Ellis’s story cited in the programme notes – when he left, his wolf family howled for him for two and a half days).
The crows are headed up by Kafka (Steve Jacobs) and Kaz (Sophie Ellerby) who make excellent guides – the mix of clowning, interactive play, and storytelling is perfectly-pitched. Kaz is besotted with glitzy things worn by audience members (a leopardskin coat is lusted after, blue hair and furry hats admired) and runs a continuous running commentary on our appearance and behaviour. Kafka is rather more philosophical – offering wry reflections on the unfolding drama, taking us out of the action then leading us back in, as a good storyteller does. (Both Bettelheim and Steiner have a lot to say about the role of the storyteller as an intermediary in frightening stories – not playing down the horror, but pulling us back from the tale into our own present-moment reality.)
All the cast is strong – Sue Hill’s Mother is a force to be reckoned with, her world replete with icons and symbols from an array of tales and myths representing ‘civilisation’: the bridled horse, the looking-glass, the white wrought-iron garden bench. Rowan is played by Kyla Goodey, who ably captures the emotional turmoil of her journey into the wild, embracing the beast (literally and metaphorically), maturing from maiden to motherhood, and dealing with the pain of loss. The moment where she finds her voice is heartbreaking. Morgan Val Baker’s Man Beast is played with a lovely mix of Peter Pan cheekiness and wild bravado – the use of aerial dance for the love scene between him and Rowan (showing their mis-matched abilities as tree-climbers and swingers) is very beautifully choreographed. In fact, it can be said that the things that defeat most theatre-makers – sex, birthing, and death – are all done with great skill by WildWorks in Wolf’s Child.
Throughout the whole promenade – almost two hours – we always feel held and supported. Every scene is staged in a way (often in the round) that makes for good sightlines wherever you sit or stand. The lighting is beautiful: small flares lighting the paths; glades animated subtly by glowing red or amber lights, or washed more theatrically in a gorgeous pure blue. When we return to Mother’s home after dark, the stark, filmic white lights turn the maids’ virginal white dresses into glowing beacons of purity against the background of the meadows and woods. The passages in between these static scenes are enlivened by the crows commentary, and by the travelling crow choir – four excellent singers (Victoria Abbott, Seamas Carey, Jude Page, and Saffron Paffron). Path-trailer crows (Sorrow et al) have obviously been properly schooled into how to move an audience around without unnecessary over-stewarding.
Towards the end of the show, we walk in silence down a particularly rocky path in almost pitch darkness. It’s a beautiful moment – embracing the darkness, listening to the woods, feeling the night air on our faces. Feeling a little nervous, perhaps – but always knowing we are in safe hands.
Wolf’s Child is a wonderful example of genuinely site-responsive theatre: it is a pleasure to be in the hands of a company who are so skilled in the art of storytelling, and who truly understand how to work in, and with, the landscape. It has been created by WildWorks in partnership with the National Trust and Norfolk & Norwich Festival, who in recent years have commissioned and programmed many extraordinary works within the Norfolk landscape. A truly inspirational commission for a gift of a site, and a very special experience that takes ‘outdoor arts’ onto another level.