When I think of twins, I think of stories. Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods (were they twins, or just brother and sister?). Viola and Sebastian, both believing each other dead in a shipwreck, joyfully reunited after mistaken identities and romantic entanglements. Romulus and Remus, raised by wolves, one brother founding Rome after murdering the other. When I think of twins, I think of scientific experiments on identical twins raised in different environments, measuring the relationship between nature and nurture on the life outcomes of a child. It seems quite cruel to observe and not to intervene.
Ross Willis’s play Wolfie draws on some of these associations but fires them in unexpected directions. Lisa Spirling’s production opens with the Sharky twins, dressed in blue and purple boiler suits, dancing inside Basia Bińkowska’s sunset-coloured womb set. The use of the space of Theatre 503, twins later spilling off the stage into the audience, makes it feel intimate. When the twins start to speak, they speak in a language that is rich and strange, poetically mundane:
‘Once upon a time we da Twins.
We da Sharky Twins.
First name Baby.
Last name Sharky.
Winners of dat ultimate egg-and-spoon sperm race.
Waiting for our victory lap.’
The opening reminds me of Disco Pigs by Enda Walsh, whose characters’ shared secret language is both what holds them together and cuts off the air in their relationship. Yet, once the twins are out in the world, Willis’s play takes a different direction, veering into magical realism. Trees and animals talk, babies are age-defyingly precocious, bubbles and glitter rain down from the sky.
The language of Wolfie, combined with the set, creates the sense of a hermetically sealed world, the audience enveloped and held in a world of the twins’ own making. But, like all fairy tales, this world is not safe. Children are subject to the whims of adults and a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. In the tension between the desire to tell what really happened and the version that would most delight their audience, the twins squabble and contort themselves and their story. It could reflect the twins’ ultimate powerlessness over their lives when they are separated from their birth mother and enter the care system.
These twins are separated too: one is raised by a wolf in a magical forest, and the other is left in the care of ‘soggy woman’, who can barely care for herself, let alone a child. Despite their different upbringings, neither twin seems much better off than the other. Both their stories suggest how hard it is to forge a life without love and to navigate adult life when you haven’t been taught the rules.
Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville are a fabulously energetic double-act, tirelessly putting on and discarding new minor characters to help her sister tell her story. Sophie Melville’s part allows her to use her gift for comedy, resulting in some hilarious scenes in which she, the wolf-raised twin, tries to adjust to human life. Erin Doherty leads one of the most affecting scenes of the play, when she watches her science teacher, the only person who has ever shown her love, dying of cancer and is unable to say ‘I love you’ back. Throughout, Lisa Spirling’s direction dances delicately on a tightrope of black comedy and human pain.
At times, particularly in the second half, the script loses focus and runs off down some imaginative rabbit holes, like when Doherty describes at length how the trees constructed a care system to look after all the human babies being abandoned in the woods. There are clear social criticisms being made here of how society fails to look after people, both as children and adults, and of the specific government policies that make benefits hard to access and insufficient, and leave people reliant on food banks. This social critique sometimes sits uneasily with the magic realism, which can prove a whimsical distraction from social reality. (The play acknowledges this to some extent, when Melville refuses to let Doherty make the cans talk at the food bank because this is real). Nonetheless, Wolfie is a distinctive and playful production, and an urgent howl of social responsibility.