Wolf's Child, Wild Works in association with Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Felbrigg Hall
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2015)
Two (artistic) encounters with wolves over the last couple of weeks have got me thinking about our relationship with the wild in ourselves and in nature, and whether there is a difference between the tame, and the domesticated. And just how easy it is to romanticise the wild from an urban lifestyle, without really experiencing it as it is.
Wild Works new site-specific immersive story, produced at Felbrigg Hall in partnership with Norfolk and Norwich Festival, takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that mirrors the Greek myth of Calisto - the nymph turned bear - and the unusual life of Peter the Wild Boy, an eighteenth century boy found living wild in the woods of Northern Germany and brought back to live in the UK.This is what Wild Works do: they set up camp somewhere, meet people, uncover stories, and produce theatre that has that place and those stories at their heart.
In this one, we begin with a warning: do not stray from the middle of the paths - wolves are about, and our safety cannot be guaranteed. Nor can it be for Rowan, mute orphan and heroine of this show, who plays her wobbly fear with strained abandon. We first meet her amid the orphanage of Mother, a prim and austere woman who has dedicated her life to creating civilised order and ladylike manners in a manicured house on the edge of a dark forest. But Mother likes to scare her orphans into propriety. and when Rowan is sent out into the woods with a shotgun, she begins an odyssey that takes in an erotic encounter with some sort of wild stag-man, a pack of wolves, a child, and an inter-generational conflict with Mother and her harem of order.
We're guided around the forest by a murder of crows: they narrate the story and entertain us on the long walks between scenes. The female crow, with her esturine squarking runs away with the show, so fantastically does she capture the playful inquisitive intelligence of the crow.
There are other triumphs, too - a puppet of a young daughter taking her first steps in the wolf pack; the image of mother riding upright on her horse before the great grandeur of National Trust's Felbrigg Hall; and the way that an hour in we realise we have left the path and are totally lost in the woods with no idea which direction lies civilisation. The sun has sunk, the sky is a blueish grey, lighter than the treetops shadowed against it. There are candles lighting our path, sometimes a blue tinge to our destination, but either side is darkness and unknown.
If there is a criticism, it is that of many large-scale site specific works - the shepherding of an audience takes time and, for all the efforts of the crows, breaks the intensity of the story. And while the story they tell feels wild and unrestrained, following a line of theatre goers doesn't. I found myself taken out of the story too often to fully immerse, which after the intensity of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing the night before, was a shame.
There's also a sense of romanticising the wildness. This feels like a story for an urban arts audience. Perhaps I just wanted some proper danger and uncertainty! But its an amazing spectacle nonetheless.
What Sarah Hall does in The Wolf Border is simultaneously less dramatic, and more creative. The novel is about transition and change, mutability, and an interaction between the tame and the wild, voluntary, changeable, permeable. Rather than looking to a mythical past for her story, she sets it the UK today, telling a story of rewilding a tame landscape as the old-order begins to break-down, and wild new possibilities open up in a newly independent Scotland. It's a cunning tale from one of the wildest of UK writers: Sarah Hall's oevre is packed with tales of altered landscapes and characters longing to throw off the shackles of conventional life for something altogether more elemental, physical, less governed by the mind.
The heroine here is Rachel Caine, refugee from a bohemian mother, who has for years been working as a wolf expert in the US. But her life is in transition, and following her mothers death and an unexpected pregnancy, she decides to accept the offer of an Earl who has an eccentric plan to reintroduce the wolf to the UK landscape on his vast estate. In language that is scented to the earthy, metallic Cumbrian landscape, we almost feel as though Rachel is some sort of shamen figure, totemically running free alongside the pack, guiding them towards their natural home. If there is a philosophy underpinning this book, it is that we cannot escape our nature, that we are all part tame, part wild and both parts will get us in the end.
This is reflected in the narrative of Scottish Independence, which sits alongside the main plot. But what starts as a naturalistic presentation of the UK over the summer of 2014, begins to become altered as the vote goes the other way, and the public schoolboy Westminster power-base is challenged. The portrait of Scotland is slightly one-dimensional; a rugged antithesis of ennobled England. But the border is both physical and metaphorical, a transition of mindset as well as of landscape.
Sarah Hall's writing is swift and enthralling, the plot sucks you in and her very real characters enchant. She's one of my favourite British novelists, and her perspective that sits somewhere between naturalist and farmer is an unusual one in the often too bland middle-England literature. There's much familiar about this tale, in setting and atmosphere. It feels like Haweswater meets The Carhullan Army, and I flew through it in a couple of days - very quick for me! - starting on a train from Lancaster to London as I mourned the fading Cumbrian landscape behind me. There's a thrill in the wild, it calls to us like a romantic longling for something we feel we've lost. Something human, though. Governed, by our fantasies and imaginings. Wolf's Child taps right into this, and is limited by it. But The Wolf Border takes a step further, exposing that longing as an empty misunderstanding, and presenting a wilderness that is. It just is. That's Sarah /Hall's brilliance.