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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hunt
Almeida Theatre   Summer 2019

This stage adaptation by David Farr of a 2012 Danish film tells a story that is disturbing and thought-provoking. But it is too cool and distanced from its subject and characters to be fully successful as drama.

In a small Danish town a schoolteacher is falsely accused of exposing himself to a small child. Although completely innocent, he gets caught up in a reaction that involves losing his job, being arrested, and becoming the target of local vigilantes.

As an object lesson in how lies like this can escalate and ruin lives, The Hunt is both convincing and chilling. But as one man's story it gives us too little reason to care.

(I hasten to say that this might be deliberate, the film-makers and adapter choosing and almost Brechtian distance. I can only report that, as with some of Brecht, the effect is counterproductive.)

I don't need a spoiler alert to say that we know from the start that the man is totally and unequivocally innocent, because we see the scene that is later lied about. But in a curious way that knowledge of his innocence makes him a less interesting character.

To cite three generically similar plays, in Arthur Miller's The Crucible the man is innocent but facing the false charges leads him to recognise other culpable flaws in himself, in Patrick Shanley's Doubt we see that the man is being railroaded but there remains the tantalising possibility that he might be guilty, and in David Mamet's Oleanna the teacher is shown to be innocent of the specific charge but capable of other comparable sins.

In each case it is the 'but' that is the core of the play, and a character who is uncomplicatedly innocent simply offers less of a play for us to be involved with.

We watch the teacher in The Hunt go through pain, confusion, anger and other emotions. But despite a fine performance by Tobias Menzies, we never get past his surface or find anything below it to invite us to care.

That same distancing effect runs through the play (I repeat my acknowledgement that it may be deliberate, but also my judgement that it's a mistake).

The little girl's parents clearly have a drama of their own, but the play doesn't want to be distracted by it, and it is not until very late in the play that we are offered some glimpse of the psychology and emotions that led to the girl's lie.

Potentially interesting characters, like the head teacher out of her depth but trying to play by the book (Michele Austin) or the central character's supportive teenage son (Stuart Campbell) are just shunted on and off stage as wanted or not, leaving their stories incomplete. And the village men's hunting (i.e., drinking) lodge that is going to turn into the vigilantes is too easy and sketched-in a cliche.

Would-be symbolic elements that might have worked in the film, like the silent appearances of a giant deer or sequences of actors running round and round the stage, are never integrated into the reality of the play in a way that resonates.

Es Devlin's stage design is built around a large gauze cube that can be opaque or transparent depending on the lighting. When used as an 'indoor' space, like a classroom or cabin, it can suggest a claustrophobic trapped feeling. But it is equally used as 'outdoors' when the rest of the stage is understood to be an interior and people come in through it, so its symbolic power is negated as often as it is asserted.

Taken as a semi-documentary, The Hunt is informative and conversation-stimulating. Taken as drama, it offers too little to engage our emotions as well as our minds.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Hunt - Almeida Theatre 2019
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