'The Hunt' review: The hunter cecomes the hunted
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'The Hunt' review: The hunter cecomes the hunted
From left: Jonathan Savage, Danny Kirrane, Tobias Menzies, MyAnna Buring, Aerina DeBoer and Alex Hassell perform a scene from “The Hunt” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Feb. 15, 2024. This modern-day fable about a man ostracized, and worse, for a crime he didn’t commit — does not really err toward subtlety. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- “Each town has its witch/Each parish its troll,” a character sings ominously while sharpening hedge shears. “We will with pleasure/Take the life from their veins.”

Let it be known that the British import “The Hunt” — about a man ostracized, and worse, for a crime he didn’t commit — does not really err toward subtlety.

The simple premise can be summed up in a sentence: Lucas (Tobias Menzies, from “The Crown” and “Outlander”), a small-town kindergarten teacher, is falsely accused of molesting several of his students, and his life falls apart. Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg told the story in an understated manner in his movie “The Hunt” (2013), which is simultaneously detached and veined with warm, if subtly expressed, empathy.

Now a tragedy that feels ripped from the headlines is deployed with fable-like horror stylings in a stage adaptation by David Farr directed by Rupert Goold, which just opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Ritualistic dancing and chanting, sacrifices, jump scares, blinding white lights, quasi-supernatural apparitions: At times it feels as if we are watching a spinoff from the cult 1973 film “The Wicker Man,” in which an island community following pagan practices drenched in sex and violence turns against an outsider.

When Vinterberg made “The Hunt” (which he wrote with Tobias Lindholm), he pulled back from the Dogme 95 precepts he followed at the beginning of his career, and which emphasize an almost Puritanical minimalism. “I wanted this film to be as naked and truthful as possible, because this was a film about truth and lies, but I had to find a new way of doing it,” he said a decade ago.

Perhaps Farr and Goold felt they had to find a new way, too, and they chose the polar aesthetic and narrative opposite of the movie’s naturalism. Goold, whose production of “Patriots” opens on Broadway in April, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, is the rare director in the English-speaking world who can dream up and pull off highly conceptual, wildly theatrical spectacles. He is most effective, however, when his imagination rubs up a bit against the material — as in the brilliant “Ink” (2019), about the rise of Rupert Murdoch.

Here, the staging can feel redundant, especially since it is burdened with foreshadowing and obvious symbolism: In case the bludgeoning was too subtle, Lucas’ version of the stations of the cross reaches a peak — or, more appropriately, a low — on Christmas Eve.

Our protagonist, whom Menzies endows with an understated, stoic desperation in his United States theater debut, is the odd man out. The quiet, reserved Lucas is separated from his wife of 15 years, with whom he argues on the phone about visitation arrangements for their teenage son, Marcus (Raphael Casey). Most of Lucas’ social life appears to revolve around his membership in the local hunting lodge, where men — and they are all men, most aggressively so — bond in macho ceremonials like swimming in freezing water and, of course, killing animals. (The stage version has cut the role of Lucas’ girlfriend, maybe to underline his isolation.)

After 6-year-old Clara (Aerina DeBoer at the performance I attended) tells the kindergarten head, Hilde (Lolita Chakrabarti), that she has been molested by Lucas, his world collapses. There is never any doubt that the teacher is innocent, and the show makes obvious the thin line between competing imperatives — listening to potential victims but also not rushing to judgment.

There is also never any doubt here that a source of Clara’s need for acknowledgment is that she feels neglected by her parents, Theo and Mikala (Alex Hassell and MyAnna Buring), who are in a dysfunctional relationship. After the accusation, they close rank and pounce on Lucas, who happened to be their friend, just like all the villagers rally against him. Mikala, in particular, is shown to pick and choose what she wants to believe, unperturbed by any lapses in logic, or evidence.

Lucas’ transition from hunter to hunted is among the shifting perspectives visualized by the ingenious set devised by Es Devlin (currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). The stage is dominated by what looks like an avant-garde Nordic tiny home placed on a rotating turntable, with walls that switch, as if by magic, from transparent to opaque and back. Intimate conversations take place in the house, but Goold can also cram a whole bunch of people in it, like the members of the lodge or the faithful at the midnight Mass. This structure is both public and private; it protects secrets and reveals them; it can offer shelter and harbor violence. It is the production’s single most fascinating element, and it is used devilishly well in conjunction with Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design and composition.

As a play, “The Hunt” is not so much about the downward spiral of a wronged man than it is about mob cruelty, as the chant about a witch suggests. In yet another heavy-handed move, the hunters even turn up with torches toward the end. What, no pitchforks? Did the Danish version of Home Depot run out?

What remains is Menzies’ Lucas, a man in the eye of a maelstrom, initially mired in impassive incomprehension until a particularly brutal act shocks him into fury. Resolution, when it comes, feels just as slippery and unstable as what preceded it: There are things you cannot walk back.

‘The Hunt’

Through March 17 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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