GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL SHIVERS – ADMIRINGLY – AT A TROUBLED TALE
In this hypersensitive age of MeToo accusations, anxieties about online pornography and even deeper-seated disquiet about questions of childhood innocence, it’s a brave move to tell a story where a child is an unreliable accuser claiming to be a victim of sexual abuse.
Adapted by David Farr from the screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (and made into an acclaimed 2013 movie starring the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen), our focus is Danish primary school teacher called Lucas (played with quiet authority by Tobias Menzies), a loner who lives in the middle of nowhere in his already isolated community. He has found himself teaching much younger children after the secondary school closed down.
The opening moments feel eerily innocuous – two six-year olds, Peter and Clara, are forced to stay late because their parents have failed to get their act together; and as Lucas looks forward to a lonely Friday night in his remote cottage, he gets them to help with clearing up the classroom before the folks arrive. Only young Clara has other things on her mind when she is alone with Lucas – she wants to give him a lollipop and she touches him in a way which makes him uneasy.
Of course Lucas tells Clara gently that this is the way Mummys and Daddys can touch children, but not teachers. But quite why young Clara wants to be close to him is apparent when the parents arrive – frazzled mother Mikala and alcoholic father Theo, both of whom happen to be old friends of Lucas’.
Seemingly hurt by Lucas’ rebuff Clara accuses him of doing something devastatingly inappropriate which sets off a train of nightmarish accusations, suspensions, police involvement and the kind of vigilantism that is a particular preserve of this kind of small community.
It’s a deeply involving story told with power and clarity in Rupert Goold’s production. Menzies’ Lucas is a rock of inscrutability and stubbornness who fails to flatly deny the accusation. He also inhabits a world of manly ruggedness where he and his friends, most of whom seem to have children in the school, frequent a lodge where they go hunting (there is more than one type of pursuit here), take saunas and dip in icy water while shouting a lot. Thanks to typically effective work by designer Es Devlin, a simple house design serves as the lodge, Lucas’ home and the children’s Wendy house, the place where the crimes supposedly took place. In a final reckoning, it becomes the town’s church. All places of safety and bonding (and, weirdly, love), all in their way, assaulted.
Farr’s taut and powerful script manages to convey the ambiguity of ruptures – both on a societal level and within the mind of a little girl and the surrounding adults. Is the problem the online porn which Clara seems to have seen on the phone of her friend Peter (who has stolen it form his father)? Or is the demolition of childhood innocence down to the fecklessness of her parents who have driven Clara to seek love and comfort form an inappropriate source, a quiet, kind and well-meaning teacher? The lack of answers speaks of the play’s intelligent sense of the enormity of the questions it is asking.
Lucas’s innocence is never in doubt, however, and his strange reluctance to proclaim his innocence means he is at the mercy of events around him, which can feel frustrating.
But Goold gives his production enough thriller-like pacing and intensity to keep us hooked. And what resonates at the close is a portrait of mind and a wider world in torment and an idyllic society, very sure of its values, and seemingly incapable of having its complacent perfection questioned. A troubled play for our troubled times.
box office almeida.co.uk to 3 Aug