Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 25 February 2024

Review: The Hunt at St. Ann’s Warehouse

St. Ann's Warehouse ⋄ February 16-March 24, 2024

Visually striking, emotionally ambiguous, this adaptation of a Danish film is both successfully suspenseful and narratively unbalanced. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
Tobias Menzies, Raphael Casey, and the ensemble of The Hunt

Tobias Menzies, Raphael Casey, and the ensemble of The Hunt. Photo: Teddy Woolf

It’s hard to create genuine suspense in the theater, a kind of sick yet pleasurable dread about what’s going to happen next. Yet The Hunt (which debuted in 2019 at London’s Almeida Theatre; the pandemic delayed its planned journey to New York) manages to bring this feverish kind of tension, even a real sense of claustrophobia, into the capacious St. Ann’s Warehouse space. Here, the audience knows more than the characters do. We witness the incident that sparks off a crisis in a small Scandinavian community, an encounter between an adult man and a five-year-old girl who is both his student and the daughter of his oldest friend. So that suspense is built on waiting for the rest of the involved parties to find out the information we already have; it’s fear that an injustice will be allowed to persist to a bitter end. (Which is a very tricky thing, given the play’s subject matter around sexual abuse of a child, but more on that in a bit.)

Adapted by David Farr from the Danish film Jagten (written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm) and directed with thrilling bravura by Rupert Goold, The Hunt really shouldn’t work: It’s an adaptation of a foreign language film for the English stage, a film that (by all accounts; I have not seen it myself) depends heavily on its worldbuilding of a small rural community. The story demands the presence of both children and dogs, with key plot points hanging on both the five-year-old Clara and the dog Max (played by a real dog). Its central character is an opaque and emotionally withholding man. Its story wrangles with thorny questions about sexual abuse and false accusation, charting a narrow path between “believe victims” and “sometimes children lie” (made even thornier here by the fact that the child in question quickly tries to retract an accusation she didn’t entirely intend to make, and it’s her retraction that’s not believed). And yet, guided by strong performances throughout and Es Devlin’s striking, bleak set, augmented by Neil Austin’s stark lighting and Adam Cork’s unsettling sound design, somehow the whole here becomes substantially more than the sum of its parts. It’s packed with images and set pieces that linger unsettlingly, even if the elements and the narrative don’t entirely add up. It’s a psychological thriller that reads more like a horror story, full of jump cuts (aided by the central set piece, a small glass house that veers from opaque to transparent and can be entered from beneath so that things and people can magically appear center stage) and haunted-looking, totemic deer.   

In a small rural village, Lucas Bruun (Tobias Menzies) was already having a terrible year: His wife left him to move to the city, gaining primary custody of their teenage son, Marcus (Raphael Casey). The secondary school where Lucas taught has closed, and he’s now teaching five-year-olds at the infant school. He lives alone out in the woods with his dog. And then on one November afternoon at the close of the school day, two of the students’ parents are late to pick them up, and Lucas is left for a short while with Peter and Clara (two actors split the child roles; I saw Rumi C. Jean-Louis and Kay Winard). While Lucas is distracted by a phone call from his son, Peter shows Clara a pornographic video that he’s found on an old cellphone. And after Peter’s family picks him up, Clara–a child with a chaotic family life, who’s known Lucas since she was an infant–seeks an uncomfortable intimacy with her teacher. When he gently rebuffs her, she mashes up her two experiences of the afternoon and lashes out with an outburst that, without her consciously intending to, comes out as an accusation of sexual assault. The rest of the play is the aftermath–at school, in the community, with Lucas’s ex-wife and son–especially as additional children start to come forward and describe even more terrible experiences with Lucas. 

What director Rupert Goold does so cleverly is to first invite the audience to stand in the place of members of this tight-knit community–and then paint its primary social engine as a world of masculine ritual that we are not a part of. The only adult women in the play are Clara’s mother, Mikala, and the school principal; much of the action takes place among the members of Lucas’s hunting lodge, rife with drinking songs, camouflage face-paint, guns, and cold-water swimming. The piece begins with a direct address to us, named as the parents attending the fall festival at the local infant’s school. After the principal’s introduction, when we think we might segue into the festival itself, the second scene– introduced with one of those magic-trick uses of the glass house–features a bunch of men in swimsuits, singing and thumping their chests both metaphorically and literally. (The rest of the play doesn’t really make sense if we put too much weight on this connection between the primary-school children and the men, with the principal’s “Shall we begin?” leading into a swimming song, but the connection is also inescapable.)

Devlin’s glass house works to engineer most of the play’s transitions, giving scenes indelible images at their opening and closing. And it functions as a metaphor on many levels: a square set on a circular turntable on a square stage in a circular playing space. As a cozy living room, a doghouse, or a playhouse, it’s protective. As a lodge and a church, it displays camaraderie for those inside, but a barrier between us and them–and yet when it’s packed full of bodies, that camaraderie quickly turns to claustrophobia. Its walls, going from transparent to fogged to opaque, can both reveal and obscure what’s within. It’s a marvelous, constantly surprising piece of stagecraft, but as with the first transition, it often feels like it, rather than the narrative, is the element linking the two depictions of this community together.

The lodge, the titular hunt—this is how the men here relate, with song and dance and no women; this is the core of the community as we see it here. Other activities involving groups–the town meeting to discuss the case against Lucas, the festival, the classroom full of children—are mostly unstaged. Where there is tension between Mikala and her husband, Theo (MyAnna Buring and Alex Hassell sharply portray a marriage that is troubled but built on a foundation of love), the men are a unified front. Where there is uncertainty and anxiety from the primary school principal, Hilde (Lolita Chakrabarty), as she tries to figure out what’s happened, the men seem to act as an almost undifferentiated unit (though Danny Kirrane’s Gunner does stand out as the leader). Hilde and the local priest (Howard Ward) address us in the audience directly, but we can only witness the actions of the lodge, sometimes with bafflement: their familiar songs and oft-told stories, their dances. (The movement work by Kel Matsena adds to the ritualized quality.) And Lucas–dressed in black or dark gray to the rest of the men’s plaid and camouflage–seems one step out of sync with his peers from the beginning. Lucas expects them to rally round in support of him throughout, but they rapidly move to exclude him in increasingly violent ways. And yet (spoiler alert), when the truth finally comes out, despite all the vitriol that’s been hurled, the lodge meets to initiate Marcus as if nothing had changed. (Or has it? Lucas and Marcus, after all, stand outside, while the rest of the townspeople cram into the house-as-lodge.)

There’s a strange tension between this chest-beating, male-bonding space that takes up much of the play, with its stylized interactions and almost undifferentiated characters, and the more delicate, tricky story around Lucas, Clara, Mikala, and Theo, people whose decades-long friendship is being put to the test first by Clara’s accusation and then by what her parents see as a self-protective attempt to protect Lucas. As Mikala and Theo separately come to Lucas in hopes of getting the truth–a truth they don’t want to believe when he tells them–we see a quieter but perhaps more affecting version of The Hunt, anchored in the work of Buring, Hassell, and Winard. Buring and Hassell both project a spiky combativeness in early scenes; their frustration with each other gets in the way of meeting their daughter’s needs. But in these scenes with Lucas, both are stripped down to more primal needs. And Kay Winard brings a gravitas and a sadness to Clara that all-too-readily allow the audience to believe that she has been traumatized by someone, even though we believe it’s not Lucas.  Goold and Farr’s focus on the lodge at times seems to distract from the actual story the piece purports to tell, shifting the weight to Lucas and Marcus’s evolution as men. 

Tobias Menzies, playing a man whose primary characteristic–even in his failed marriage–is restraint, has a hard job, and he rises to it admirably. You hardly ever see an expression plainly on his face, but you feel how hard he’s working to maintain that calm; when it breaks–when he’s pushed beyond what he can take–his actions feel genuinely unpredictable. And yet the restoration of that calm for the ending feels a little too pat for me. Lucas is restored to his place in the community; the community’s masculine center is set back in order. That’s not really the story I care about here. 

What sticks most readily in the memory of The Hunt are those unsettling images: Male bodies shadowed against the walls of the glass house. Men at the corners of the stage wearing giant deer heads. Lucas climbing through a crowd packed inside the church, carrying the bloody corpse of his dog. And yet a key development in the plot comes via a phone call that we hear only one side of. The experience of watching The Hunt is unquestionably thrilling. But I come away feeling that that visual effectiveness comes at the cost of narrative and emotional balance.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: The Hunt at St. Ann’s Warehouse Show Info

Produced by St. Ann’s Warehouse and Almeida Theatre

Directed by Rupert Goold

Written by Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm, adapted by David Farr

Choreography by Kel Matsena

Scenic Design Es Devlin; COSTUME DESIGN: Evie Gurney

Lighting Design Neil Austin

Sound Design Adam Cork

Cast includes Myanna Buring, Raphael Casey, Lolita Chakrabarti, Aerina Deboer, Adrian Der Gregorian, Ali Goldsmith, Alex Hassell, Shaquille Jack, Rumi C. Jean-Louis, Danny Kirrane, Tobias Menzies, Christopher Riley, Jonathan Savage, Howard Ward, Kay Winard

Original Music Adam Cork

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1 hour 40 minutes


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