Who’s afraid?: New Theatre’s Wolf Lullaby

Like so many other students, I first discovered Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby at school. Set the task of designing a set and costumes for the play, we became engrossed in the hypnotic darkness, the encroaching claustrophobia which runs through so much of the play, and I think it was one of the first plays that made me think that maybe theatre was something I should consider spending my time on (pre-dating my Shakespeare-lightbulb-moment by about fifteen months.)
Currently playing at the New Theatre, it’s quite strange to see a play that you’ve got a history with performed in front of you, brought to life as it were. It’s like watching an old family story made real – you’ve seen or heard it so many times that you know exactly how it goes, but when it moves there’s just something about it which feels eversoslightly surreal, as though the lens isn’t right or the details are slightly blurry… I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that having studied it at school, having known it for nine years, the Wolf Lullaby in my head is naturally not the one others see, but it is still unmistakably Bell’s ‘Lullaby.

Wolf Lullaby tells the story of nine-year-old Lizzie Gael who is questioned over the suspicious death of Toby Chester, a toddler. Set in a small-town in Tasmania, the play examines the meanings of truth, the impact on a family, and the justifications for our actions, even if they tear us apart.
Allan Walpole’s set is suitably dark and moody, well suited to Bell’s Australian Gothic sensibility. Clearly demarcating four or five distinct playing areas, in conjunction with Heidi Brosnan’s moody lighting, Walpole creates a sparsely furnished house, a similarly-furnished police station, a gaol cell, a vacant lot known as ‘the Weeds’, and a nondescript downstage area like a dark void. The underlying menace in Bell’s script echoes in the set and the lighting, as well as the sound design – a mixture of Bell’s eerie children’s rhymes, lullaby tune, and a deep floor-shaking rumble (the work of Chelsea Reed and Alexander Tweedale). My only quibble with the set is that if feels as though it’s pushed too far back in the space to fully capture the claustrophobic sense of despair which runs through Bell’s play.
As with most of Bell’s work, there is a fascination in – with – the macabre and unseemly, a kind of black delight in probing the darker side of humankind, and it is sobering to watch here, as we get caught up in this little world and come to know these four characters. Here is the mother, Angela (Lucy Miller), convinced her daughter is guilty, but at what price; how far is she willing to go, and how will she live with the decision? Here is the father, Warren (David Woodland), who flatly denies that his daughter is capable of such an act, and how he copes as his beliefs crumble like plaster around him. Here is the policeman, Ray (Peter McAllum), who follows the law to the letter, pushing an uncomfortable view of the truth. And here is nine-year-old Lizzie (Maryellen George), caught amongst it all, suspected of murdering a toddler, a girl who is haunted by an overpowering wolf who drives her into the darkness.
While the performances are all strong, particularly from Maryellen George as Lizzie, it feels like the anger here is more superficial than identifiably real; that is, it lacks the kind of subtext which grounds such emotions. There is an irritation and a frustration, sure, but an anger borne out of desperation and exhaustion? I’m not so sure. Part of the devastation in Bell’s play comes from the way notion of truth – as both a hard-and-fast construct, and as a malleable mercurial thing – and the ways in which each character encounters and uses it to their own (dis)advantage. The play is a dark fairytale that borders on a horror story – it is a desperate plea for help, from both Lizzie and her mother in their own way, a scream for someone to listen and understand, and therein lies part of the play’s tragedy. Angela and Warren’s anger comes not from Lizzie playing games with their patience so much as they are at wit’s end with her and her evasion of the truth; it’s not angry-anger but frustrated-anger, anger that comes from trying to reach out but not getting through, not getting any closer, and we don’t really get that here. As directed by Emma Louise, we certainly get the darkness, the sense of entrapment, the ever-changing notion of truth, but the scream for help only really seems to come from the mother, and even then it seems quite shrill; no one really takes Lizzie seriously except when they are discussing the fate of the toddler.
Wolf Lullaby asks us just how far we will go to save one of our own flesh and blood, how far will we go to tell the truth – a truth; indeed, what truth means – to an adult, as to a child; is there even ‘a’ mutually agreeable truth? It asks us how we view and judge – interrogate – evil, in adults and in children, as well as the nature of mental illness and our capacity for doing something truly unconscionable. It’s a disturbing play, one that hasn’t lost any of its bite in eighteen years; as performed here, it is still a strong and moving play, but I couldn’t help but wish there was a little bit more subtlety, a little bit more restraint and depth shown in the characterisation of Lizzie’s parents.

Theatre playlist: 49. Sound sculpture I, Paul Healy

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