Frank Lawton previews The Winterling
“Hold on, you uncomfortable?” stabs David Shields as Mr West to Patsy (played by Leo Suter), but the challenge-cum-accusation can be levered just as much at the audience itself. For this promises to be a very uncomfortable, impressive production, consciously adhering to Rough-Hewn’s principle of making “visceral and inescapable” theatre.
Jez Butterworth’s play is a simmering country gangster (yes, such a genre does exist), where surface level tension always belies deeper, darker secrets ready to rise up and rip the rug from under the world. Even the considerable comedy in the play is tapped from an unnerving vein, serving to heighten the sense of nervous menace. Set in a derelict Dartmoor farmhouse inhabited by former heavy West and a female waif called Lue (Carla Kingham), we are flung in at the moment when West’s old associate, Wally (Arty Froushan) and his self-assured step-son, Patsy, mysteriously arrive.
The lives of the characters quickly become unsettled along with the audience, and this sense of disconcertion is foregrounded and heightened by director Susanna Quirke’s manipulation of the space available to her. The Keble O’Reilly is to have its usual steep tiered seating arrangements transformed into a smaller ring of seats, enclosing the stage with the audience rather than have the actors facing a literal fourth wall. Although this plan will result in a 2/3rds reduced capacity, what is lost in sheer numbers is no doubt more likely to be made up for by the added intimacy and claustrophobia an enclosed circular stage will bring; taut, heightened breath and air-rupturing bursts of anger will be all the more forceful as a result of this immersive set. A potential problem with this arrangement is that part of the audience is inevitably going to be unable to see an actor’s face and is going to have their view blocked momentarily. However, I’m inclined to think that this will only add to the looked- for sense of confusion and threat that dominates the play, with challenges being flung unseen with hidden but hinted at subtexts. As Patsy pleads (the audience may think on their behalf),”go on, throw me a bone”.
Another arrow in The Winterling’s quiver is its cast, one of the strongest you will see in Oxford all year. Arty Froushan’s Wally combines nervous energy and bubbling anger, every little gesture calculated for effect, while Leo Suter’s Patsy moves between perversely inflected glee at Wally’s lack of composure (“you’re sweating like a rapist!”) and the blind, assured self-confidence of youth. Carla Kingham’s portrayal of Lue switches between a disconcertingly aloof other-worldly-ness and a frantic obsession with the fantasy of escape, flipping between shy silences and splenetic bullet- bursts of speech. But perhaps if there is an outstanding individual performance, we should look to David Shields’ Mr West and the electric interactions between him and Wally. Shields is able to dance the line between traditional alpha male joshing comradeship and truly incisive, aggressive probing. He slips between humour and violence and then back again with (un)natural ease, his ultra-expressive eyes glaring with an intensity that at times blends sincerity and psychosis, leaving both the other characters and the audience vainly clasping at a slippery, ungraspable sense of his true emotion.
There is no doubt that this play owes a huge debt to the plays of Harold Pinter; in some respects I’d even argue it is a derivative work. However, if you’re going to imitate someone you could do a lot worse than Pinter and, with this cast and directorial vision, don’t let anything put you off what looks like being a highlight of this term’s theatre.
The Winterling will run from 15th-18th May (Wednesday-Saturday of 4th Week) in the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, with matinee performances on Thursday and Saturday. Tickets are available from £6.
PHOTO/ Joseph Saxby