Company of Sirens brings The Wolf Tattoo to Chapter this week, a play by Lucy Gough that is based on her decade-old short play Wolf Skin. Set in traverse upon a bed of chipped playground rubber, in a post-apocalyptic world, the piece sets out to explore gang life and its destructive influences on young lovers Graf (Gwydion Rhys) and Rose (Saran Morgan). Societal norms and, one assumes, the population, have been decimated by avian flu. These youngsters live on the cusp of chaos. Graf and Shenks (Jarred Ellis Thomas) spend their nights running with the pack across the wastelands, clad in wolf skin and doused liberally in piss. They both long for the validation that will come with their first solo kill; Rose on the other hand “chooses life” and yearns for safety for herself and her unborn child in the faraway idyllic Dunster Estate, where “people push prams” (one can’t help imagining inner-city high rises rather than the National Trust property in Somerset). Her confidant and go-between Ash (Non Haf) is unflappable in her support.
Under the direction of Chris Durnall, the opening scene, in which the cast twitch and writhe in a kind of drug-fuelled agony, contains devised movement that has developed out of the physical vocabulary of BSL (Sarah Smith has advised as BSL tutor). Indeed, Durnall says, the subtext is played out as BSL gestures that express love, fear, anger, hope. It’s a rather odd thing to watch and dictates a staccato physicality that echoes the unnaturalness of the setting. I am not sure it is entirely successful, in part because the subtext is not buried that deeply to begin with. The programme says that “language has broken down”. Perhaps this is why the text is fairly stilted and repetitive; only offering small snippets of information that would be tantalising to explore in more depth (what is the significance of tattooist Snakeskin (John Rowley) taking Graf’s soul for example? Will Graf be protected from the pack or is Snakeskin, too, a predator?).
There are some lovely moments, especially between Saran Morgan and Gwydion Rhys and the cast are entirely believable, even when their delivery is verging on laborious. Jacob Gough’s lighting design adds a welcome thread of colour and the uneven surface of the loosely-demarcated performance space gives a real sense of no-man’s-land. A brief but brutal altercation is brilliantly choreographed and is tinged with a discomfiting sensuality.
Gough is keen to explore toxic masculinity, it is clear. Gang culture is proliferating in UK city centres but increasingly includes young women too – they are not necessarily indoors washing pelts. As it stands, the play does include female characters who are seemingly able to live in hope and as a consequence thrive. They look on, stoically, as the men unravel through the pursuance of acts of violence and ultimately self-destruct for no logical reason. Perhaps this is the most powerful message of the play: that humans act on impulse, animalistically when under threat, with no capacity after the event to logically explain why.
Durnall has been known to say that he doesn’t like “plays where two people just talk to one another”. This is a shame. Opportunities for some real interaction, naturally delivered, tending away from easy gender stereotypes, have been missed here and the play falls short because of it; for we miss a chance to explore fully the psyches of people who try to fulfil the human urge to love and be loved whilst grappling in the dirt for meaning and direction.
If short plays set in a dark dystopia are your thing, then do see The Wolf Tattoo. It is on in Chapter Arts Centre until 30th June.