'The Hunt': Theater Review

Marc Brenner
'The Hunt'
A stylish reboot with added music and folk-horror elements.
8/3/2019

'Game of Thrones' veteran Tobias Menzies plays a small-town schoolteacher accused of sexual misconduct in Rupert Goold's stage version of the Thomas Vinterberg film.

Back in 2004, the Almeida first brought Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg's dark 1998 tragicomedy The Celebration (Festen) to the London stage, a hit adaptation that traveled to the West End, Broadway and beyond. The same theater's current artistic director, Rupert Goold, is doubtless shooting for similar heights with his latest Nordic Noir reboot, this time adapting Vinterberg's Oscar-shortlisted 2012 drama The Hunt, a cautionary parable about a small-town schoolteacher ostracized by friends and neighbors after he is falsely accused of sexual misconduct by a 6-year-old female pupil.

The film won best actor honors at Cannes for Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, the well-loved teacher at the center of the moral panic. On the stage, Lucas is played by Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones, The Crown), who lacks Mikkelsen's vulpine beauty and louche charisma, even if his poker-faced air of quiet desperation is probably better suited to the role of an emotionally repressed divorcee whose secretive nature counts against him when enraged neighbors learn of the sexual allegations.

This new English-language adaptation by David Farr (The Night Manager) lacks some of the nuanced shadings of Vinterberg's screenplay, veering into shouty melodrama in places. Even so, Goold's superbly mounted production has punch, polish and contemporary resonance. It feels like a hit.

Vinterberg's film emerged years before the #MeToo movement, but The Hunt feels more relevant than ever in the current climate, raising uncomfortable questions about the perils of allowing righteous mob rule to stampede legal due process. Of course, it helps that we see Lucas is wholly blameless from the start. That said, the play generates purposely uncomfortable tension when 6-year-old Clara (impressively handled by Tara Tower on press night, one of three kids sharing the role) appears to act with almost flirtatious intimacy toward her teacher. By highlighting the sexualized anxiety that adults impose on innocent childlike affection, Goold invites the audience to consider our own complicity.

In its screen blueprint, The Hunt was a domestic thriller grounded in social realism. Goold and Farr have streamlined and stylized the story a little, lending it a more universal, fable-like feel. They have also excised the character of Lucas' Russian girlfriend Nadja and reduced the presence of his teenage son Marcus (Stuart Campbell), amplifying the sense of one vulnerable man against an entire town. Those echoes of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and Miller's The Crucible were always present in the film, but this production makes them more overt.

In a bold addition, Goold and Farr pepper the drama with lightly choreographed musical numbers, including a recurring hunting-lodge drinking song whose boisterous machismo curdles into menace as Lucas switches roles from hunter to prey. Adam Cork's percussive score also adds dramatic heft, particularly during a torchlight parade sequence, which highlights the parallels between small-town security and vigilante fascism. The repeated appearance of symbolic minotaur-like figures crowned with antlers is another strong visual touch, boosting the story's latent folk-horror subtext. In this incarnation, The Hunt becomes a grim fairy tale, steeped in ancient Nordic folklore.

But the jewel of this production is Es Devlin's ingeniously simple stage design, a compact glass house outlined in neon, its walls cleverly switching between transparent and translucent effect. Mounted on a discreet carousel that sometimes revolves counter to the wider stage turntable surrounding it, this striking dramatic hub serves as school classroom, hunting lodge, church and various homes. In combination with the mythical minotaur figures, it recalls Devlin's eye-catching work as creative director for various Pet Shop Boys projects, notably their 2013 Electric tour.

The Hunt has its stilted moments, particularly in the tense exchanges between Lucas and his estranged best friend Theo (Justin Salinger), Clara's father, hot-blooded outbursts that strain too hard for emotional effect. But overall this is a taut and finely judged production, reimagined just enough to make the source material fresh without softening its bite. Seven years later, Vinterberg's Scandi-Noir classic seems less about one man's unjust fate than it is about the dark forces that animate entire communities, protecting simplistic notions of purity and innocence by stoking populist fears against demonized outsiders. In that respect, it could hardly be more timely.

Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: Tobias Menzies, Michele Austin, Stuart Campbell, Poppy Miller, Justin Salinger, Taya Tower, George Nearn Stuart, Keith Higham, Jethro Skinner
Director: Rupert Goold
Playwright: David Farr, from the screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Evie Gurney
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Fight director: Bret Fount
Movement: Botis Seva
Presented by Almeida Theatre