The town of Hope Hill is haunted by the story and the history of the Wolf – a woman who will appear in the middle of the night and take things from you. But as with any local legend, everyone has their own take on truth, lies and how to combat the coming of the wolf.
Hour of the Wolf is Malthouse Theatre’s next foray into immersive theatre after Because the Night in 2021. That was also set in a small town, but while its narrative was based on Hamlet, this new show has created an experience around truth – how people hide it, how we come across it, or how we might discover it, if we dig underneath the surface.
The spooky small-town vibe is an anchor for the audience. We’ve seen films and television shows and read books telling stories of small towns haunted by their own pasts and the legends that grow up around them. We’re in familiar territory, yes. The story is full of tropes, sure. But how we experience that eerie hour between three and four a.m. is what separates this show from other narratives of its kind.
Immersive theatre is not new to Melbourne, so any shows of this type can’t get away with just dropping people into strange sets and have them react to being centimetres away from an actor. Hour of the Wolf finds some new tricks to engage the audience. It’s part theatre, it’s part audio experience, part investigation, part escape-room. And all the moving parts fit so well.
In other immersive works I’ve seen, design – costume and set – has been the true wow factor. If nothing can really be compared to Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York – because of its epic scale, the sets of Because the Night were compelling because they were surreal and oddly detailed. In Hour of the Wolf, the rooms you explore – a karaoke bar, a hospital waiting room, a bedroom, a convenience store, amongst others, are strangely naturalistic. It’s the sound design that takes the experience to the next level.
All the audience members wear headphones. The actors wear body mics, but we are also treated to a kind of narration from actor Natasha Herbert. She welcomes us to the town and guides us on our way after each scene ends, but the work of the headphones does not end there. As you leave one room for the next, the audio atmosphere changes – and if you are willing to explore empty rooms or alcoves, the soundtrack is altered for a more personal experience. It encourages you to explore in explicit and subtle ways.
The fractured and repeating narrative is intriguing in its own way. Non-linear narratives are not unusual to modern audiences, but in this instance, during the show’s 65-minute running time, you will see scenes again – and with more information than you had before. For example, when I first saw Keegan Joyce dressed as a Priest, I thought that’s who he was. The next time I saw this character, my whole impression of him changed. The truth was stranger than that.
The show’s cast is stacked with extraordinary performers – giving clear, compelling performances that you can dissect when you’re sometimes closer to them than the other actors. It’s hard to pick stand-outs in a show like this, but it’s hard not to appreciate that Lucy Ansell has had a remarkably busy year on Melbourne’s stages, and she’s extraordinary here once again. But go see Emily Milledge in a Laundromat. Katherine Tonkin in an artist’s studio. Follow Kevin Hofbauer from the bar to the convenience store. Witness the aftermath of a car crash and find what is hidden around the edges of every room.
Keziah Warner’s script is clever in the way that it is both clear and obfuscates the truth nearly every step of the way. One minute you think you have a character pegged and the next, you have to reassess. The construction of the experience is orchestrated by co-creator and director Matthew Lutton, who brings out rich, affecting performances from the cast, but also knows how to move them from space to space in an interesting way. Each and every transition in clear.
Anna Cordingley’s set design is layered and functional in straightforward and elaborate ways. You feel like you’re in those spaces when you are there, but moving between them is like a dream. Jethro Woodward’s composition and sound design is another character that you become intimately familiar with as each room comes with a soundscape of its own.
I personally figured out the answers to some of the puzzles that lay around and was pleased to have unlocked a space that not every audience member would find. But based on fleeting glimpses and my face pressed up a square of glass, I know there was something else – a whole other experience – that I totally missed.
Hour of the Wolf tells the story of one hour on one night, reckoning with the truth and fiction of a local fairytale. It’s one thing, though, to think that you might solve or resolve these narrative questions. It’s another to give yourself over to a whole different kind of experience. For me, immersive theatre is never about layered characters or complicated narratives. It’s about reading notes on a wall, watching the same scene from a different angle, finding new ways in and out of the rooms and these stories the characters tell themselves.
For me, this show succeeds because you do feel part of Hope Hill, even if you don’t have any hope of seeing or understanding the history or the current story of this town or its denizens. It’s enough that you spend a dreamlike hour there. And you climb through these vivid moments, perceiving moments of truth that are clear and in a combination that no one else will see.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Pia Johnson