Performance review: Hour of the Wolf, Malthouse

This choose-your-own adventure (again) is the Malthouse's latest immersive production.
Hour of the Wolf. Image shows the back of a silhouetted wolf figure and a man with his back to the wall brandishing a sharp object at it in fear.

The last time the Malthouse produced an immersive show was in 2021 – Because the Night, based on deconstructing Hamlet. It was quite the success, drawing crowds eager to experience a playful dismantling of the fourth wall. In its latest, Hour of the Wolf, it is apparent that truth is relative; here it is splintered into many refractive parts and beholden to the eye of the viewer.

Hour of the Wolf is ostensibly set in a small fictional town called, innocently enough, Hope Hill, but all is not well in this hamlet, because in the witching hours of 3am to 4am, in the winter solstice, something wicked this way comes, to disrupt the residents’ peace. Is it a lupine creature as the title alludes to, or some other maleficent force? Over time, folk legend and superstition have colluded and no one quite knows why, on this night, things go missing. Not just bodies and pets, but also memory and reason.

Though there’s no reference to it in any of the supporting publicity materials, surely the title itself is a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film The Hour of the Wolf, which is full of Gothic tropes and is about an artist on an island bedevilled by paranoia and nightmares, with the action itself occurring some time between midnight and dawn. In the opening credits, the film warns, ‘It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful…’

All of which provides an added subtext to this Malthouse iteration.

Audience members are given headsets before entering this world, which offers spliced up narratives depending on which rooms you visit. Initially we all meet in a smoky karaoke bar with a singer crooning (of course) Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and two men offside debating the merits of party drugs.

From here we are free to wander around the many-roomed space – the entirety of Merlyn Theatre has been reconstituted to present various facets of Hope Hill, and kudos to designer Anna Cordingley and her team for fashioning sets that bear faithful verisimilitude to a laundromat, a gym, an alleyway, a convenience store, a funeral parlour and about 10 other locations. The attention to detail is painstaking. Episodic scenes in several of these spaces are played out simultaneously, with soundscapes by Jethro Woodward tailored to each room and lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson that gets it right, whether it’s bright and abrasive, cool neons or moody and mute.

The initial effect can be discombobulating, probably due to being given the freedom of choosing your own adventure, so it takes a few minutes to reorient yourself and decide how you will approach this production, which is more a detective game than any traditional theatre.

Though Hour of the Wolf is indeed immersive – you can wander around the characters and fossick through all the props – it’s not interactive per se. The 11 actors will not talk to you and you are discouraged from making any contact with them. You are a visitor, a witness, to their reality, not someone who can influence their actions.

Instead, through the headsets, you are given a choice of what to do after each scene: which character do you want to follow? The whole night’s travails take about an hour so there’s time, if you’re lucky, to back track and visit any of the installations you missed to capture the whole picture of what is going on with the poor unfortunates of Hope Hill. Hour of the Wolf opens up to multifarious points of view, with alternative realities; your understanding is partially dependent on the order in which you experience each scene.

It’s hard to write a review without any spoilers of the basic narrative, but the story seems a bit overstuffed. In the course of this one cursed night there will be (apparently) a murder, a car crash and a relationship dissolution.

For the most part the actors acquit themselves well in these intimate spaces; there must be added pressure to perform and maintain concentration when people are milling around, barely an arm’s length away from you.

A couple of issues arose on opening night: depending on where you stand (or sit) the audio quality through the headsets can be compromised by staticky noise and, while others may have had the chance to visit all the rooms and hear from all the residents, we missed at least one crucial scene and later, post-show, wondered whether failing to catch this particular narrative sequence was detrimental to our overall understanding. Unless we decide to return another night (or have a debrief with other theatregoers), this missing segment was frustrating.

There is also not much time given to do a thorough search through the rooms for any possible clues that may augment your understanding, so strong is the fear of missing out on visiting other spaces in the limited time you have.

Writer Keziah Warner and director Matthew Lutton have collaborated on a show that’s full of ambiguity and, for those who like solving puzzles, each room offers different pieces. There are interweaving stories, a mishmash of reality and myth, past and present. As the night wears on there is a definite sense that some Hope Hill residents take advantage of this yearly event for their own reasons, that superstition feeds into their own neurosis.

There’s no doubting the scope of ambition to realise a production as intricately designed as Hour of the Wolf. Though sometimes it does feel a bit gimmicky with style winning over substance, and with the hour duration feeling rushed, what it will do is provoke discussion as to various interpretations of the happenings on Hope Hill. It will appeal particularly to those who like to not only see, but experience theatre beyond the conventional proscenium arch.

Hour of the Wolf
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
Creators: Matthew Lutton and Keziah Warner
Writer: Keziah Warner
Director: Matthew Lutton

Assistant Director: Bernadette Fam
Set Designer: Anna Cordingley

Interactive Dramaturg: David Harris
Costume Designer: Zoë Rouse
Associate Set Designer: Karine Larché
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Composition and Sound Designer: Jethro Woodward

Associate Sound and System Designer: Justin Gardam
Set Dresser: Matilda Woodroofe
Stage Manager: Lyndie Li Wan Po
Assistant Stage Manager: Rosemary Osmond
Cast: Lucy Ansell, Jack Green, Natasha Herbert, Kevin Hofbauer, Keegan Joyce, Brooke Lee, Emily Milledge, Christina O’Neill, Eva Rees, Karl Richmond, Katherine Tonkin

Tickets: $65-$99

Hour of the Wolf will be performed until 3 December 2023.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy