It's only at the end of this play, that you realise the key to understanding it lies right at the beginning, even before a single line has been spoken.
'In a Forest Dark and Deep' is Neil LaBute's new two-hander, set in a kind of holiday home – a cabin that nestles in trees near a lake where people fish for their supper, and keep themselves to themselves. Betty is packing things up in the house that she initially says is an investment property that her and husband, Bruce, have bought. Because he's at home looking after the kids, she's called her brother, Bobby, to come over and help her clear out the belongings of the person who had, until recently, rented the property. But as the story unfolds, we learn that Betty has a secret which she can only share with her brother.
Bobby arrives and almost immediately the two siblings start to bicker, raking-up the past and disagreeing on even the trivial. They are very, different personalities. 'How did we come out of the same womb?' says Betty, and we ask that question too. But what becomes clear is that, apart from their parentage, they have at least one other thing in common: they need to be needed, and it's their undoing and their downfall.
Bobby is disagreeable, argumentative and spiteful. A carpenter by trade, he's full of anger, raging against anyone and everyone. He's the kind of man who thinks he is right about everything, hates political correctness – or even good manners – and doesn't care much what others think about him. He has two failed marriages behind him, and blames his sister for interfering in at least one of them. He claims to have a moral core, and implies his sister doesn't. But, in the end, his morality is subject to change as long as he feels needed and important.
Betty, on the other hand, is an intellectual. A college dean, she's extremely attractive, but thinks her beauty is fading. For much of the play we sympathise with Betty, pitted as she is against her apparently cold-hearted and insufferable brother who seems to want to torment her at every opportunity. But Betty is no academic angel. In fact, she turns out to be an expert manipulator who cares little for the consequences of her actions, even when other lives are ruined. 'I'm just so used to lying', she says. And by the end of the play we believe her.
A storm rages outside and the lights flicker and fail at regular intervals, providing rest-periods between rounds of conflict between the two siblings. Soutra Gilmour's excellent set is shaped like a giant letter A with two huge walls resting against each other to form a kind of wigwam. It's not so much a home as a place to be, comfortable but without much in the way of personality or character. It's a hideaway, a place to be alone with someone else.
Relatively short at just over 90 minutes and with no interval, 'In a Forest Dark and Deep' is an absorbing, well-written play which Neil LaBute also ably directs. Both Matthew Fox as Bobby and Olivia Williams as Betty turn-in intense and finely-honed performances defining distinctive characters, even if they are deliberately somewhat stereotypical.
As with much of Neil Labute's work, 'In a Forest Dark and Deep' is potently provocative. Though neither of these people are saints by any stretch of the imagination, it's almost impossible not to take sides, but you may find yourself swapping allegiance. In a contest like this – and that's what it turns out to be - it's inevitable that we seek a victor, which brings me back to the beginning of the play. When we discover the truth about the tenant who has occupied the cabin and his relationship with Betty, we see more in her actions at the start of the play than mere tidying-up – we see planning, foresight and the work of a ruthless schemer. In effect, the contest is lost even before it begins.
"As a portrait of psychological warfare it's undernourished, and even when it's dark it isn't deep."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Punishingly dull and predictable."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"An intermittently taut two-hander...This forest is dark, but it is not all that deep."
Paul Taylor for The Independent