Neck of the Woods, HOME,
Manchester International Festival

The presence of wolves in stories and songs has long reined. Douglas Gordon, best known in the art world for rendering the familiar strange, has set himself up to further explore this animal’s reputation. Supported by Manchester International Festival and accompanied by pianist Hélène Grimaud and writer Veronica Gonzalez Peña, Neck of the Woods, Gordon’s first stage production, conjures an interesting examination towards the symbolism and mythology surrounding this creature.

Brimming with style Neck of the Woods flirts with fairy tales and musical scores that have come before. Its strength arguably is it’s own down fall, as such a heightened awareness to the wolf’s history shortly becomes restrictive. One assumes it is through this limitation though that Gordon wants us to tread. However paying spectators bring the understandable expectation of being entertained, and probably more importantly the desire to easily consume such a pleasantry. Gordon’s mantel then, of I provide the board, the pieces and the dice but you are the ones who have to play could potentially become a problem here.

Writer Veronica Gonzalez Peña who is known for her binding conversational lyricism, unfortunately adds to Gordon’s unsociable approach to direction. Her heavy, emotional script, in the midst of everything else that is happening on stage is easily confused and consequently looses substance and depth.

Not that the production was ever short on sensationalism, but the Sacred Sounds Woman’s Choir support Neck of the Woods through choreographing both acoustically and physically a ghostly pack of wolves in the background. Their harmonies and presence are actually a nice touch, and are arguably under used. Yet lets take a moment to be thankful for the presence of Hélène Grimaud, who despite sporadically surfacing throughout the performance strokes and stabs her piano keys with such wisdom that she just about manages to keep the whole tension of the drama ticking along. Her flailing tempos, and unconventional phrasings stand head and shoulders above everything else on display.

This startling collision between visual art, music and drama is well placed at HOME’s new theatre, whose whole ethos is dedicated to producing questioning and ambitious artistic projects. Yet despite its suave, best efforts there is a fundamental sadness to Neck of the Woods, a sadness that cruelly lands on shoulders of Charlotte Rampling. Encouraged to believe Rampling’s character is an older version of Little Red Riding Hood, she is left with the unfortunate burden of holding together the entirety of the piece. Gordon’s off stage presence, Sacred Sounds Woman’s Choir, Grimaud’s piano, Peña’s script… sadly Rampling is an incohesive conductor. Taking only a damp few steps throughout her performance, only the literal sense of her being lost in the woods, as well as the context of this play prevails.

There are however memorable sequences, especially during the opening and closing segments. Plunged into darkness, the audience can hear the noise of a tree being chopped down. The acoustics rattle the whole theatre. Blow by blow you can hear the gasps of the Woodcutter grow muggy and tired. It is prolonged, uncomfortable, which of course all makes for great contemporary theatre. The tree eventually lets out a distressing cry, and slumps to the ground. In its wake lies only an audience who are left to quarrel over the whole subtext of the production.

Ashleigh Owen is an artist based in Manchester.

Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival and Douglas Gordon.

Neck of the Woods, HOME, Manchester.

Manchester International Festival 4 – 19 July 2015

Published 21.07.2015 by James Schofield in Reviews

594 words