There were three distinct jumping-off points for the cast of Howling Like a Wolf: performer Eleni Androutsis’ imitation of a wolf during the show’s creative development, a book on the ‘reading’ of people and situations by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink, and a famous series of photographs taken in the 19th century by French neurologist Guilliame Duchennes. The photographs show the results – some of them truly disturbing – of Duchennes’ attempts to stimulate typical expressions in the faces of his patients by using electrodes. These disparate inspirations drift in and out of focus throughout the performance, but something of their energy always remains. Howling Like a Wolf is a work about connections – between people, between the human and the mechanical, between ideas which sometimes bounce off of one another like billiard balls and sometimes coalesce into moments of mesmeric beauty.
The show is a collaboration between four leading disability arts companies: Restless Dance Theatre, Tutti Inc, No Strings Attached and Company@. I have, regrettably, never seen any of these groups in action before but each has a formidable reputation which can be felt throughout Howling Like a Wolf. There is no one, clear artistic vision on display here and I think the production is all the better because of this. It is possible, I think, to feel each attempting to pull Wolf in one direction or another, to exert its own unique performative emphases on a show which remains, despite this, more or less seamless.
It opens with the cast encircling Eleni Androutsis in a fashion which brings to mind a lynch mob, or an assembly of school children gathering to watch a fight. One cast member, Matthew Shilcock, starts to beat out a slow, menacing rhythm on his thighs and soon he is joined by everyone except Androutsis who remains the target of some nameless fury, pinpointed and terrified. After a time, she cannot take it any longer and makes a run for it, her face contorted into an almost cartoonish expression of fear. A hospital trolley is suddenly wheeled on, equipped with a camera and two projectors which throw huge, distorted images of Androutsis’ face onto the bare white walls of the Queen’s Theatre.
The audience is not given long to think on the significance of this arresting image before different moods are found, punctuated by voiceovers performed by the cast and drawn from an array of sources including Charles Darwin’s Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals and Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed. Even some surprising pop culture sources are mined, including the International Movie Database’s entry on Meryl Streep, and the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In this way, Wolf quickly dispels the idea that it is going to be a grim affair, a macabre journey through historical quackery and the dark side of human social interaction.
There are several scenes which are, in fact, far closer to home. In one, as an insistent voice over repeatedly intones some dull mantra, the performers enact the programmed rituals with which most of us begin our days: washing, dressing, eating breakfast. We see ourselves reflected in the actions of the performers – though filtered through their various disabilities – as they playfully stage bus trips, meetings with strangers in the morning rush hour and smiley rendezvous with the opposite sex. One thread which goes through most of Wolf sees a love triangle evolve in which two performers with Down Syndrome fight for the affections of another performer, Kathryn Evans. Sad, beautiful and funny.
There are, to use a hated expression, several game-changers during Wolf but the most captivating, as well as the most altering, occurs when performer Amanda Schipper dons a wolf costume and begins to prowl around the performance space. There are moments – thanks in no small part to Geoff Cobham’s outstanding lighting – when Schipper’s face can hardly be seen and it really does seem as though some tameless, unpredictable force is suddenly among us, a herald from another place and another time, ready to scatter our modern foibles and worries to oblivion. The cast seem to be inexorably drawn towards the wolf but before we can account for any of this, two automatons march across the stage and everything is thrown into uncertainty once again. These artificial people, attached to the bodies of two performers, are robot-like but there is something altogether retro about their design which makes them all the more intriguing; they’re more Jules Verne than Star Wars.
In a flash, however, they are gone and the audience is seemingly once again back in the world of the wolf. The cast – now crawling and baying, victims of an irresistible lycanthropy – follow it to a distant part of the stage where a row of portable heaters blaze like the dawn. The final image of the performance is an extraordinary silhouette, a technically brilliant evocation of a timeless image – the howling wolf set against a white, radiant full moon. It’s a denouement that, even as it perplexes, takes the breath away. Nobody was ready to clap even as the stage was plunged into darkness and it seemed oddly fitting that in the cavernous Queen’s Theatre our applause seemed to go nowhere, swallowed up by the abundant space and the cold night air. Or, perhaps, the void left by the absence of Jed Palmer’s superb, partly-live score was just too big for our numb hands to fill.
If this review hasn’t made it clear already, Howling Like a Wolf is a marvellous and, dare I say it, magical piece of physical theatre. It’s an inspired coming together of theatrical energies, unafraid to give its audience space to breathe and to think. That it lacks a cohering vision, and doesn’t penetrate all that deeply into its subject matter, is in the end unimportant. Like Ducheness’ experiments, Wolf emerges as an exercise in provocation, constantly jabbing its audience in unexpected ways in order to see what happens. Had anyone been photographing our faces as we watched, I expect we, too, would have run the gamut of human emotion from joy to terror. That, in anybody’s book, is surely the mark of a great show.