A woman stands at the edge of the forest. No, a girl. There’s a wolf lurking about and all that the presence of a predator in the dark suggests. We’ve all heard this one before. Neck of the Woods, a strangely uncategorisable theatre performance falling somewhere between live art, one woman show, concert and reading, wasn't entirely successful, though I didn’t hate it as much as some. Overall, I was glad I saw it, though my attention started to wander at points. But there are many things about the production, directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, that troubled me.
The performance began in a pitch darkness that stretched on for so long the audience started to get anxious, with the sound of a woodcutter… sloooowly… felling a tree crashing in our eardrums. It was a bold and effective start; ending the same way felt lazy. No question, the ingredients here are top of the line: The presence of Charlotte Rampling is enough to get me anywhere, along with roughly 75 percent of the audience. Pianist Hélène Grimaud played solo piano music riffing on famous works and overlapping in the way you imagine the text was meant to. And Sacred Sounds Choir, a Manchester-based outfit formed as part of a previous MIF, didn’t sing but provided the soundtrack, producing all of the sounds of the forest: distant wolves howling, spooked birds and wind in the trees, while their white-gloved hands writhed in the dark. Lovely.
But there was no cohesion to the story. A large portion of the script (written by Veronica Gonzalez Peña) was simply Rampling reading a retelling of Red Riding Hood. While being told a bedtime story by our Auntie Charlotte is a delicious proposition, we know that story. Us knowing that story should have freed the writer up to expand on it, take off from it, make some art to do with it, like Angela Carter’s short story In the Company of Wolves, wonderfully adapted for television by Neil Jordan, or even Catherine Storr's Clever Polly and The Stupid Wolf – but this never happened. The other fractured narratives presented alongside Little Red Riding Hood were weak, feeble things that alluded to themes of child abuse but were too oblique to really connect.
And when you’re in a situation where the dramatic action consists of a woman telling stories alone on stage, those stories better work. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if the music is amazing and the sound is incredible and your actress is a Legend of the British Theatre and there is ultra-high-quality staging and lighting and costuming – even if all of those things are unquestionably brilliant, your audience will leave the forest feeling a little flat.
Sure, you can’t always hit it out of the park, and a festival consisting mostly of new commissions can always defend itself by citing the edgy, still-evolving nature of its work. In response, we’re expected to preen over the city’s identity as artistic lab for the world, as refined versions of MIF productions move on to New York or Paris. This would be easier to swallow if we weren’t being charged finished-article prices. A Neck of the Woods ticket cost £35. I went with a friend, who paid full price because MIF’s imprint meant quality. In this case, it didn't. (In an even more dispiriting corner of the programme, Bjork tickets were £45, which seems bewilderingly expensive for what is essentially a standard album tour gig.)
In the end, it comes down to respect; respect for the audience, and respect for the artists, performers and venues involved in making the works. Many crimes are committed in the name of art, but why should we indulge them? If the incredibly experienced actor in a one-woman show doesn’t get the script in time to learn her lines, there’s a problem with the artistic process. If the artist responsible for it reacts to bad reviews by walking through a theatre with an axe down his trousers and going on a rampage that damages the building and himself, it can’t be waved away as ‘artistic temperament’. No doubt all at MIF are relieved to be hightailing it out of this neck of the woods. No wolves here after all, just one very big turkey,