The Woods review – Mamet’s battle of the sexes is spiky but shows its age

Theatre

Southwark Playhouse, London
A couple bicker through the night in a remote cabin in a well-performed revival of David Mamet’s two-hander from 1977

David Mamet’s odd if intriguing two-hander from 1977 is probably one of his lesser-known plays for good reason. The Woods features a young couple arguing out their differences at a remote cabin. This “battle of the sexes” drama is of its own time and place, too generic to be provocative now, but Russell Bolam’s revival offers a meditation on how far sexual politics have progressed.

The relationship unravels over the course of a single night, ending in – typically for Mamet – a violent confrontation. Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) and Nick (Sam Frenchum) look like a wholesome 1970s American couple in jeans and plaid shirts. They speak, often in coded ways, about their fears and desires around love. She is initially grating with a plainly stated yearning for commitment; he is a picture of coiled masculinity, cornered by her heavy hints of a shared future together.

The play contains Mamet’s hallmarks in dialogue and his preoccupation with sex, power and control but the language has a poetic, dreamy and non-naturalistic edge, the couple telling each other stories about falling into holes, seeing martians and getting lost in the woods. There is a strong undertow of the unsaid and of double meanings.

The production does not feel static even though its three acts comprise little more than conversations on the porch, with occasional interludes of physicality, artfully orchestrated here.

It begins with woozy talk about nature, desire and the earth, and seems like a joint stream of consciousness, as if the pair are talking in half-sleep or drunkenness. But it hits spikier ground as the couple quibble, make up, get tetchy again. As their conflicts grow we hit Mamet’s recognisable rat-a-tat exchanges of staccato dialogue, with the occasional flip back to wooziness.

She seems slightly cliched in her initial pleading, and he in his withholding, but Ruth grows in strength and complexity over the course of the drama. Nick, however, seems forever trapped in a reductive straitjacket of masculinity that, while excellently performed, seems like a cardboard incarnation of manhood. He takes the stereotype of the commitment-phobic male to ludicrous heights, almost deranged by his fear of settling down alongside his romanticising of it.

Even in the play’s weaker moments, the performances keep us gripped. Carpanini and Frenchum capture the tonal ambiguities between the couple and walk the line between aggression and sexual attraction well.

Anthony Lamble’s set is a porch with a tree trunk almost nestling among the audience, and extended pauses between scenes heighten the tension. Ali Taie’s sound design and Bethany Gupwell’s lighting are jagged, suggesting a potential for this romance to sour into horror before the night is out, even if the play, ultimately, does not supply a satisfactory enough end.

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