Wolf’s Child, Felbrigg Hall

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Originally written for the Guardian.

It’s hard to imagine a more atmospheric setting for WildWorks’s latest outdoor show. Stepping inside the grounds of Felbrigg Hall, sun hovering just above the horizon, the woods whisper with promises of magic and transformation. As we depart into the dusk, there’s a warning: we must, like Little Red Riding Hood, stick to the middle of the path. There are wolves here.

Before long, though, WildWorks lead us off the well-worn track. Inspired by the Greek myth of nymph turned bear Callisto and by the extraordinary experiences of Shaun Ellis, who spent two and a half years living with a wolf pack, Wolf’s Child takes its audience deeper and deeper into the wild. Beginning at the hall, the orderly preserve of wolf-hating Mother and her collection of orphan girls, the show follows young ward Rowan as she ventures beyond the neatly manicured garden and into the territory of the beasts. As tends to happen in the woods, she is soon transformed.

We’re led through the twilight by performers in dark, tattered crow costumes, forming the squawking chorus of the show’s large cast. Narrated by our guides, the fable is told in a fairytale fashion, with simple statements and occasionally clunky rhymes. But Wolf’s Child is an exercise in enchantment more than it is in storytelling. Lit evocatively and unobtrusively, nature’s stage – from a platform of tangled branches to an imposing cathedral of trees – is the real star of Bill Mitchell’s production. The performers’ wordless movement offers the most powerful transition from wild to tame and back again, while Victoria Abbott’s soundtrack reverberates hauntingly through the forest. Flames flicker in the distance and lupine howls shred the air.

It’s only in the stomping and shuffling from scene to scene that the spell threatens to be broken. The crows are a smart touch, tending the tale at the same time as marshalling the audience, but there are only so many ways to chivvy people through the trees. In the tussle between civilisation and wilderness, Wolf’s Child can’t quite throw off its human shackles.

Photo: Steve Tanner.

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