I was intrigued to be lured into the woods of Trinity one chilly November night, with instructions only ‘to bring a coat’.
But I couldn’t have thought of a more appropriate form of invitation to O Human Child, which is dark and primal, with the plot revolving around the luring away and initiation of a child in a paganistic fairy ritual. I couldn’t help feeling like that child.
The writer and director Tara Isabella Burton draws both on great literature – Yeats (who gives the play its title), Shakespeare, Keats – and the physical theatre of Punch Drunk to create an intriguing high Romantic mashup. The cast list is divided into ‘Fairies’ and ‘Mortals’, with the former taunting, controlling and seducing the humans throughout the play. All of the characters spend the whole 90 minutes on stage, leaving the viewer free to wander around various plots and sub-plots, occasionally being dragged into the action, and fed ‘Fairy fruits’ (grapes, apparently).
These sub-plots give the play a constant tension, as the lovers circle each other, some in grape-induced passion, others in confusion and rage. Throughout the play, the sound of human emotion bubbles up – screams, giggles, cackles, growls, groans, moans. This cacophony was led by Emma D’arcy, as Puck, with a raucous, vitriolic laugh. She shone throughout. This primal soundtrack meshes well with the physical theatre – the pack of fairies that constantly dog the human characters, and the terrifying convulsions of Thomas Bailey’s Knight as he is thrown across the stage by the Fairy Queen (Hannah-Kate Kelly). Unfortunately, it sometimes fails to interact with the poetic language of the script. At one point the Fairies discourse in impeccable Shakespearean tones, as the ritual destruction of the child’s doll takes place at their feet in a howling gaggle.
Occasionally, the script itself seems to lack cohesion, with the plot sometimes difficult to untangle (though I was only shown a sample of the scenes). One actor acknowledged that they were thinking of introducing a narrator role, to explain the plot to the audience, but it is difficult to see this working without breaking the intensity and immersion of the experience, which is the real strength of this production. At one point, the play introduces a story within a story, which was compellingly told and acted, but seemed like a rather clunky way of introducing Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’.
All that is forgotten when Leonie Nicks, as the Fairy King strides across the stage, dominant and implacable, to drive the Fairies to frenzy. As soon as Puck, the King and their Fairies lead the action again, complemented by rather than accompanying the script, the play’s vitality shines through again. Luckily, the director has allowed this to happen throughout most of the play. So despite some lack of cohesion, the emotional intensity on show here should be reason enough to allow yourself to be lured into this Bacchanal ritual.
O Human Child will be perfomed at the Moser Theatre during 6th Week