“What if I said, you are the single most important breath in my space…
And you believed me?
Does that change anything?”
Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play opens with the actor playing Wolf speaking to the audience about truth (“a wobbly thing”), imagination and the wolf. The wolf is a metaphor, a symbol, a name and a troubling symbol of masculinity. Wolf is an actor, voicing the thoughts of a child, who thinks himself a wolf in boy’s clothing. A boy from East Asia who has been adopted by one American family and who has now been given to another family with the signing of a simple waiver.
Peter Hunt has given the wolf away. Robin Shepherd has adopted him. The exchange is straightforward and troubling because of that. The handover is approved by gentleman’s agreement, though Peter starts to question everything when he realises that the man he thinks is Robin’s partner is actually her brother Ryan, and her real spouse is Ash, a female boxer.
He leaves Wolf with them, though. His objections to their lifestyle don’t override the decision he’s made with or for his wife.
Wolf, the character, is represented in voice by actor Yuchen Wang, and in body by a cloth puppet, controlled mostly by Wang but, on occasion, by the rest of the ensemble cast. Wang’s voice is calming – plus the occasional wolf howl – and the puppetry is gentle, precise and full of empathy. The combined performance is extraordinary. The boy is there, in front of us, even if we must use our imagination to see the truth and the child and the wolf inside.
Much of the conflict in the play centres on adults who are not ready to be parents in conflict with partners, wives and brothers about how best to raise the boy. Peter’s concern that Wolf might be raised by two women is almost the least of the problems, since Ash isn’t even sure she wants the child and Robin didn’t even go to the trouble of adopting him properly, connecting with his original adoptive parents in a Facebook group.
The emotional centre of the play is the boy, put up for adoption in his home country, and then shunted from one family to another without much planning or thoughtfulness. The boy is six years old, fully capable of communication and understanding, who has already started to think of himself in animalistic terms. Does being the wolf help him to become more resilient under trying circumstances or does casting himself as the wolf help the boy to distance himself from his underlying emotional state?
What are we teaching boys when we raise them to believe in alpha males and lone wolves or when they are told “there are two wolves inside you”?
Charlie Cousin’s Peter is nervous and twitchy and unpredictable. Jing-Xuan Chan’s Robin is the most empathetic adult, trying her hardest to raise a child who is not her own, twice over. Brooke Lee’s Ash is physical and energetic and Brooke’s performance captures a person whose family is changed in a morning and is slowly coming around to accepting the new boy in their life, when circumstances change for everyone yet again.
I was deeply moved by Wolf Play. This production at Red Stitch, beautifully and smartly directed by Isabella Vadiveloo, is clear in its communication and execution. We are there with this boy, stuck in the middle of a maelstrom of parental figures, none of them willing to take full responsibility. But beyond that, the play is about the commodification of children and the unreality of childhood – where fantasy clashes with reality, sometimes far too often.
I came away thinking about the boy and the wolf inside him and Yuchen Wang’s incredible performance to bring the child to life.
And I came away thinking about Philip Larkin’s poem, This Be the Verse
“They fuck you up, you mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.”
And I came away thinking about how the Wolf’s parents, all of them, don’t think about him enough. Even if he does believe them when they say “you are the single most important breath in my space”, while they expend their breath arguing over him and not for him.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Wolf Play is playing at Red Stitch until April 2.
Photos by Jodie Hutchinson