The Wolf Tattoo, the latest work of award-winning playwright Lucy Gough, brought to the scene by Company of Sirens, aims to take its audience to a nondescript dystopian future (brought about, hints in the text suggest, by some kind of avian flu epidemic) in order to engage with reflections that have little to do with dystopia in itself, and more with the impulsiveness of youth, the need to be accepted by one’s peers while still reclaiming one’s individuality, and toxic masculinity. It is an interesting mixture of themes, all of which undoubtedly hold great relevance for a contemporary audience – particularly a younger one, that might see reflected in it its own very real tensions and anxieties. It is also refreshing to see the theme of toxic masculinity and the terrible consequences it imposes on young men, in particular, represented on the stage in a form that is interested in compassionately considering as a phenomenon rather than finding refuge in easy condemnation. The theme of male identity, and the societal pressures imposed on it, is one of the great unspoken things in the contemporary artistic reflection on society; it is extremely pleasant to see a woman author provide a take on it that is clearly based on careful consideration, empathy, and a sincere engagement with the issue. In its thematic contents, it is when it engages with this topic that The Wolf Tattoo is at its strongest. Elsewhere, the text comes often across as less effective; it relies far too much on metaphors that appear rather obvious, and one would wish that the text would allow its characters to speak through their actions more often rather than resort to less-than-subtle allegories. The characters are certainly capable of it, also thanks to excellent performances from the whole cast; in the moments when the writing appears less concerned with delivering a message and more with telling a story, it is also when (in an only apparent paradox) the message easily shines through.
From a technical standpoint the play has a number of strengths. The unusual and effective scene setting manages to convey the hostile environment in which the characters move without need for direct descriptions, and plunges the audience into a feeling of unease from the moment it steps in. The use of lights is particularly good in this sense, as is that of sound. Director Chris Durnall is meticulous in his handling of timing and movement on the stage, allowing the play to be particularly effective in its non-verbal communication. The theatre scene in 2018 has shown a growing interest in bodies and the ways in which they communicate; the use of bodies in this staging sits squarely in this trend, and is perhaps one of the more successful examples of how body language can become a powerful expressive tool. Again, the performance of the whole cast is to be complimented for the care that is put in honing their physical presence.
All in all, one walks out of The Wolf Tattoo with a feeling of frustration for a play that is brave enough to address little-talked-of themes, supported by a brilliant cast of actors and by a director that clearly put a great amount of devotion in making this work as expressive as it was possible, and yet somehow falls short of the mark in brushing upon its more interesting themes without delving in enough depth. Perhaps this is a consequence of the play’s limited duration; there is a feeling that, had the writing allowed the characters more time to express themselves and explore their conflicts further, the ideas that the play carries – which are clever, and cutting, and in its best moments undoubtedly powerful – would have emerged more clearly. When the pace becomes less relentless, and the characters are allowed more introspection, the writing is vivid and successfully captures the many nuances of the tangle of conflicts in which its protagonists are caught. It is perhaps the urgency in propelling the action across what is a rather short piece compared to other similar works that forces the writing to seek at time refuge in easy allegories – but it is at those very moments that its power comes across diminished.
The Wolf Tattoo is an interesting experiment in engaging with themes of great importance that are at times little explored; it can rely on an excellent staging and clearly puts care and attention in the building of its characters, yet it feels at times like somewhat of a lost opportunity. At the end one is left with a desire to see more of these characters, this universe and this story; to be allowed to engage with it more closely. It is a work worth seeing, even with the consideration that its potential may not have been fully expressed.
Chapter, Cardiff Until Saturday 30 June