The Hunt, a tale of a man’s world crumbling around him in the wake of false accusations of paedophilia, is so utterly harrowing it barely qualifies as entertainment. It’s two hours of gut-wrenching tension, each escalation in the drama coming like a physical blow. It’s a nightmare given solid form, and its transition from screen to stage only amplifies the horror through proximity.
Adapted from the 2012 film starring Mads Mikkelsen, it follows a taciturn school teacher, Lucas, struggling with his estrangement from his teenage son. One day, apropos of virtually nothing, one of his pupils claims he committed a lewd act in the classroom, and before he knows it his life is irretrievably screwed.
As well as examining the dark inverse of the Scandinavian dream – how close-knit communities can be toxic as well as nourishing – it also ponders some deeply uncomfortable questions. It asks us, for instance, to consider our assumption that children are unsexual. Preceding the young Clara’s accusation, she makes a disconcertingly adult pass at Lucas, and it’s her wounded pride that sparks the whole sorry mess.
It also looks at the way corrupted ideas can spread like a virus through communities. Once a single child has made an accusation, more soon follow, like terrible dominos crashing through Lucas’ life. Likewise, the adults whip themselves into a frenzy, with the town hunting lodge transforming from a bunch of bantering lads into a pack of wolves with taste for blood. This tribalism takes physical form, with shadowy, folkloric figures with antlered heads stalking the edges of the drama, foreshadowing tragedies to come.
At the heart of it all is Lucas, a quiet man who silently suffers the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune. He refuses to cry and shout and scream, which is taken as an admission of guilt. A lot, therefore, rests on the shoulders of Tobias Menzies in this difficult role, and while he sells his character’s awkward charm, he’s less able to convey the turmoil that takes place beneath the surface.
ES Devlin, the set designer behind The Lehman Trilogy and American Psycho, has built a glass house as the play’s centrepiece. Through clever use of smoke, lighting and trapdoors, characters appear to vanish from within this enclosed space in an instant. One minute it’s a bright church full of people, the next a dull, opaque box housing a sinister silhouette.
The Hunt is as visually striking as it is emotionally draining; hardly what you could consider a gentle night at the theatre, but an undeniably powerful work.