The primal connection between humankind and animals is the subject of a wide variety of output in all areas of culture and reflects our deep seated instinct to interact with the natural world. It’s why so many children’s stories, fables and more extended fiction make animals central figures in order to shine some sort of light on our own behaviours. Philip Pullman’s daemons in the His Dark Materials trilogy, for instance, reveal the inner natures of their associated humans, being free and fluid pre puberty and thereafter fixed for the rest of life. A monologue drama, currently at Hampstead Theatre, also trades on this connection in a play called Wolf Cub. And although this has absolutely nothing to do with Baden-Powell’s young people’s organisation or the associated stories from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, inevitably the audience will still make those sort of associations … or perhaps that is just me.
We first see the protagonist peering tentatively round the corner of Amy Jane Cook’s well realised set. This is a ruined freeway sign which once said Los Angeles poised over a strip of freeway which has been brutally ripped apart by a seismic occurrence, the Northridge California earthquake of 1994. This event made thousands homeless, and Maxine is one of them. But her life had been ripped apart long before then as soon becomes clear; she takes us back to her childhood and what has happened to her in the intervening years. The daughter of a one parent family she has been systematically ignored/brutalised by her father becoming almost feral as she learns to fend for herself. Her only real moment of connection comes when she sees a wolf giving birth and feels herself at one with a creature famed for its brute strength and cunning but also highly socialised. It’s as though the spirit of the she-wolf enters her psyche and at times of great stress (not infrequent in her case) she identifies totally with it; she also channels energy from the Lupus star constellation.
Ché Walker’s poetically image filled script is no cheap attempt at a lurid werewolf tale (though there are some elements of this in the mix) but rather a psychological probing of a deeply flawed character who faces both personal abuse and is let down by society and its politicians. For Maxine grows up in the era of Ronald Regan’s ascendancy – something which Walker clearly sees as a precursor and even validator of Donald Trump’s later behaviour. A section concerning itself with the police brutalisation of Rodney King elides neatly into the more contemporary story of George Floyd and shows that in some fundamental regards not a lot has changed. There’s also quite a bit about the Iran-Contra scandal and Walker even shifts Maxine to Nicaragua so that the consequences of Reganite policy can be explored more fully. There are clear notes on all this in the programme but as I generally tend to look at those post show it was a bit of a memory stretch to recall some of the events referenced; take my tip and do a quick bit of revision before curtain up.
Although I wasn’t always fully convinced by the play itself, Clare Latham’s embodiment of Maxine is total and a joy to encounter. Tough and determined to survive, she also manages to convey an air of almost naïve innocence as she reflects on the fractured nature of her character, the society in which she lives and even the freeway where she is now standing. It’s a performance of carefully controlled power with touches of animal like physicality but there’s also a strong sense of corrupted innocence; it’s a delicate balance to achieve but Latham manages it superbly. She is well served by Walker as her director who ensures that every inch of space is used and that intimate direct addresses to the audience really are intimate. To add to the febrile atmosphere there’s an excellent underscored soundscape from designer John Leonard and plangent music by award winning actor Sheila Atim adding yet another string to her bow. Finally, there is some tellingly atmospheric lighting by Bethany Gupwell which gives the piece an other worldly quality.
Indeed, this is a production where all the elements have coalesced well to provide an experience greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a haunting piece of work which taps into something primal within us all, a piece of modern myth making (and busting) which uses elements of magical realism to give a universality to the central experience which transcends the here and now. Humans can still learn much from the animal world but not all of it will be comfortable.