There has been much talk of Matthew Fox’s chin in the run up to the world premiere of this two-hander by Neil LaBute. Has something happened to it? What is he hiding under that beard? Was it perhaps a CGI chin all along? A plot device concocted in one particularly stoned and interminable Lost scriptwriting session, in which the entirety of Hurley’s family history stretching back to the Paleolithic would erupt in a five second flashback from the space between Matthew Fox’s nose and neck? And if it is real, how can such a definitive statement of hirsuteness possibly fit with the stage actor’s plasticity of the soul? Is it a sign of madness, alcoholism (drunks notoriously require beards for forest-fresh filtration of their breath, and as Santa Claus disguises in case they get too jolly around children) some form of artistic degeneracy, or cunning homage to Brad Pitt’s middle-period? We know it hasn’t been great for him since Lost, but has he really taken that job as Bill Bailey’s roadie?
Well I can happily lay this all to rest and report that Matthew Fox’s chin is indeed real. And how real! This is a chin that is both daringly two tone and a tribute to the time ZZ Top fell asleep on the kerb and got run-over by a line painting machine. But with more clinical purpose than that suggests – like a test-tube skunk, steely and jutting like a weaponised badger. It bears a sharpness of elevation that could haunt Le Corbusiers’ dreams, keeping him up at night frustratedly kicking the collapsing duvet over his head – “Why!” he would cry. “Why can I not build a world like Matthew Fox’s beard?” as the scales of the machine age slipped from eyes, tears splashing onto his own inadequately-wrought mentum. Fox’s jaw holds great promise – it’s like a stubbly freeway; the world’s first cantilever bridge made entirely of keratin; a sign-post to a future where everyone’s face looks like a cross between Guy Fawkes, an Elizabethan duck, and a handy sidetable. You look at it and you feel a tremendous sense of confidence, in nature, in the universe, in God’s plan for all of His chins, great and small.
Fortunately, for those whose interests all things mandibular only goes so far, it also happens that Matthew Fox is quite good at acting. He plays Bobby, a roustabout anti-intellectual hayseed, a guy’s guy; a typically LaButian mix of gritty masculinism, patriarchal honesty, and simmering violence. He is engaged in a mindgame of kith, kin and sexual tension with his sister Betty, played by Olivia Williams. Fox struts around to crunchy grunge music, putting a lot of shoulder into it, bouncing and threatening. At his worst he’s like a Spaniel playing a boxer: at his best he’s deploying those Lost eyes in stiff and unrelenting judgement, patrolling the stage with lupine minaciousness.
Williams is a lot of sound and fury, yet the extent of her signification is moot. The script presents the challenge of finding a common ground between sexless, slightly mannish bookish professor, and a seductive beauty trading on her looks. Williams plays the first half-an-hour in a paroxysm of shrill grief, and it’s slightly unclear whether this is what LaBute thinks of liberal intellectuals, or Williams is looking to turn up the frequency of the emotion so high it becomes the first ever performance to adequately approximate a dogwhistle – lots of manic gesticulation but a curious absence at the centre, pushing her trademark squint into some eternally still and unreachable place. When this subsides there is a definite nimbleness to her performance, and her reactions are luxuriously, ripplingly, modulated at times, it’s just a nimbleness that threatens to nimbly skip right off without ever telling us all that much.
LaBute once said in interview; “I think humans find it so easy to just slide by, to take the road that’s slightly easier, to make the choice that’s just a bit more selfish or self-serving, that we end up creating our own Hobbesian universe.” And LaBute certainly does that. There is a bleakness to In a Forest that LaBute has made his calling card; the controlling, paranoiac edge, the belief that behind the speechifying lies the real truth, that in the gap between word and deed monsters lie. There is also a strong egoism at work in his writing, in which intentions are always emanating from a sense of self-gain and preservation, and to pretend otherwise is to lie. This monstrous belief helps make his monsters flesh, and Bobby is a masterful portrait of the sort of patriarchal ultra-individual that America once wielded over the world.
Less successful are his women, and Betty is scattered and unreal in her dissimulation, with a very unconvincing line in bemoaning the loss of feminine beauty and allure. Perhaps what isn’t often noted is LaBute’s debt to Coward, this slightly emptied sense of performativity, that differs from camp in its ambiguous relationship with artifice, but nonetheless allows his characters leeway to skirt moral grounds, to ruthlessly manipulate, and gives that sense of propulsive uncertainty that lead up to his dank, bludgeoning pay-offs. Here perhaps the best moment of the play comes when the two drop the duelling pistols (the reports of which become somewhat relentless) and relax for a brief second of rapport, hinting at an actual relationship in a way that all the wrangling and manoeuvring fails to.
Some of the modes of patriarchal expression limp a bit, as does the insistence on sin and ethical arbitration, and we get a picture of a moral American wasteland that feels a little dated. The sharp vaulting of Soutra Gilmour’s “gingerbread” house set seeks a certain Mitteleuropean oddness, the angled eaves work well as devices into which the characters can be cornered, bent over, defeated. The thunder and lightning effects, in all of their godawful z-movie splendour, work to sap rather than produce tension, undermining a West End spectacle that was all about the promise of volatility, the stage thriller and the big show. And perhaps it’s best not to analyse it too deeply. More of the dark, less of the deep, and hinting at an staleness in the LaBute template, but with all the characteristic macho verve – this was never really about the chin-stroking.