🐺 Hour of the Wolf by Matthew Lutton & Keziah Warner

Hour of the Wolf takes all of the idiosyncrasies which made Malthouse's last try at immersive theatre so charming and engrossing, and replaces them with a docile and synthetic attempt at recreating the magic

🐺 Hour of the Wolf by Matthew Lutton & Keziah Warner
Image: Kristian Gehradte

Let’s start with some context.

It’s early 2021. No more lockdown—yet. Masks are everywhere (as they should be), and Malthouse comes out with the ultimate masked theatre-going experience: Because the Night.

Because the Night was an ambitious adaptation of Hamlet in the style of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (sadly closing before I got the chance to see it 😩). You don a face-mask, and then another plastic mask to hide your features, and then a cape. Then you're left to wander Elsinore anonymously as an hour long show plays out around you—you miss things, but you also see things no one else does. There was something terrifyingly exciting in the feeling that you could miss out. I remember one scene was performed just for me, as I stood in the corner of a room while Hamlet (Keegan Joyce) took to drinking. There's scenes from that play I've never seen, and will never get to, but that's the fucking joy of theatre.

In contrast, Hour of the Wolf takes all of the idiosyncrasies which made Because the Night charming and engrossing, and replaces them with a docile and synthetic attempt at recreating the magic. It's still fun, and exciting to see set designers given such leeway with their work, but Hour of the Wolf loses all the sticking points that made Because the Night so compelling.

The basic gist is this: you enter the theatre and are given headphones which amplify the scene taking place in the room you're in—and then you get to explore. Every twenty minutes or so however, the show restarts, and you can follow a different set of actors to see their twenty minute track. It's entirely possible to see the entirety of the show. I imagine Malthouse received a lot of audience feedback from Because the Night centred around a feeling of missing out—but it's a shame they seem to have remedied that, because it loses all of the mystery that made the original so compelling.

Stop reading here if you don't want any spoilers

Hour of the Wolf takes place in a regional town on the one night of the year when a mysterious figure comes to town, promising to make things disappear unless you leave an offering to her. Across the (gorgeous) sets, you get to discover the lore of this town and what happens during the eponymous hour.

But—to keep things interesting—there's also an escape room of sorts. You can collect little tokens scattered throughout the set, and if you end up with all four you can enter a secret room and have an intimate scene with the titular wolf. I wasn't able to get there in-time so I missed out on this scene—but unlike in Because the Night where I had no clue what scenes I missed but nevertheless got a whole plot, I could see through a window the scene I was missing and I knew that that was the one piece of the story I missed out on.

I understand the desire to make work like this more interactive—roleplaying is super fun as an audience member. But the basic mechanism at play here is quite frankly, a little boring. Each token's location was demarcated by a statue of a ghostly figure, so finding the tokens became a tiresome chore of rooting around drawers and cabinets in the set. I didn't feel any closer to the story because of this.

Furthermore, the escape room elements were at odds with the scenes. Those of us hunting for tokens were walking through scenes which were clearly blocked to have stationary audience members. I felt bad walking through scenes looking for tokens, but at the same time, I didn't want to miss out on the one scene I thought I might actually miss out on.

Irrespective of the structural issues, this is a visually stunning piece of theatre—the sets aren't quite as expansive as what we saw in Because the Night, but the detail is just as strong. It's so exciting exploring all these different rooms, and the completely different atmospheres that abound. Anna Cordingley's work here on the set design is phenomenal, and the most memorable part of the evening.

The sound design, and particularly the technology underpinning the room-specific design was exciting. It wasn't perfect—sometimes the headphones would play crackling static if you walked into a dead spot, but it worked well enough that it really added to the immersion. Intimate moments were highlighted no matter where you were in a room, and the addition of a narrator served to explain the structure of the work well.

The ensemble performing the work is deeply talented too, but there's a sense that none of them are performing at their peak. On Fridays and Saturdays the show is programmed to run three times a night, and twice a night the rest of the week. And during each show, every actor repeats their scenes three times—so on a Friday or Saturday any one actor is doing the same show nine times over and over. This naturally calls for performances to be limited and reserved—because you've got to sustain yourself in those conditions, but unfortunately that means that the work never really reaches any emotional climaxes. The world of these characters feels one note as a result.

In short, Hour of the Wolf felt too safe, too structured, too obvious, and (yes, let's talk about it) too commercial.

Besides the fact that it's running up to twelve times a week, it's obvious (by the discount code I received after the show in my inbox) that Malthouse is gunning for people to come back to see it again... to not miss out on anything. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, you know? Sometimes the magic of theatre is in what you do miss.

I have to say though, that I did have fun in Hour of the Wolf. I didn't love it—but it was fun. But then again, it's the sort of measured out medium amount of fun you allow yourself to have at an art gallery—not what I'd expect from a flagship show at Malthouse.

Hour of the Wolf is at Malthouse Theatre until 3 December. You can get tickets here.