In a play about the disappearance and destruction of old customs, heritage and history, a beautiful, crumbling building (the oldest surviving in the world) already steeped in similar stories is an apt choice. Indeed, this play by Julian Garner was written specifically for Wilton's Music Hall, and fully exploits the venue's charms.
Set in an ancient log church deep in the Transylvanian woods at the time of the communist Ceaușescu's reign, Father Nandru and The Wolves is a typical folk tale, rambling, extraordinary, changeable and full of character and animation. The main plot focuses on a village priest's attempt to keep the peace within the factions of the community, while realising that just around the corner, a darker communist-shaped doom threatens.
Tropes and motifs common to folk tales (the outcast daughter, the gypsy boy, mysteries of the woodland, visions, weird creatures, tall tales…) are communicated deftly through music and movement. Gypsy music, folk routines and dance are integral elements of the production, while dialogue is completely in verse, giving a melodic, sing-song rhythm to the piece and maximising the sense of play and playfulness through its sweet and simple rhyming structure.
The use of puppets in various shapes and forms is by far one of the most successful aspects of the show. With their intricate designs, ghostly faces and expressive movement, the puppets fully embody magic and myth, and add real potency to the story that truly showcases the appeal and versatility of puppetry in its various forms. The wolves in particular command attention as they sidle onto stage with an enjoyably atmospheric creepiness that will make your hair stand on end.
The unnerving nature of puppetry in particular is explored here. Shapes, shadows and sizes of characters, places and things vary continuously, suggestive of the experience of dreams, nightmares and visions. It teases the collective imagination, reminds the inner (or current) child of hidden fears and fancies. Something any good folk tale should do.
It would be wrong though to perceive this play as spooky or macabre. While imagery and allusions draw to the dark and the strange, the sounds and the movements of the cast - and their puppets - underscore this with a lightness that denotes the inherent playfulness in the act of a tale being told.
The final scene offers a nod towards the venue itself, acting as a triumphant farewell to this first phase of the old music hall's return to glory. This is the last full scale production for Wilton's Music Hall, which itself will be redeveloped and re-formed under a different name this summer.