Crying wolf at Holden Street Theatres

This May Oily Rag Theatre will perform Wolf Lullaby, an unsettling examination of how a child could commit murder.

“As people we like to think the best of children,” says Wolf Lullaby’s director Kristin Telfer. “We think of them as innocent and altruistic and good, but unfortunately as we know when terrible things happen, that’s not always the case. Nine year olds are capable of doing bad things and knowing the difference between wrong and right.”

Having first debuted in 1997, Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby is a four-hander that asks how a child could murder another child. It follows Lizzie, nine, her parents and a police officer as the family and community try to grapple with a horrific event. Lizzie has killed a small child, evidently deliberately; motivated by nightmares and voices she interprets as a wolf compelling her to commit heinous acts.

Bell based the play on notorious cases of child-on-child homicide that captured public attention, such as the James Bulger or Mary Bell cases. Transposed to Tasmania, Wolf Lullaby probes deep moral taboos and debates of nature versus nurture and the play forces the audience to ponder the issue in considered terms.

“The big discussion here is about how a child can do something this evil,” says Telfer of Oily Rag Theatre’s debut production. “It asks, is evil something people are just born with, or something that’s happened to them in their life? Is it something in Lizzie’s parents’ genes that they’ve passed on to her, or something they’ve done wrong in bringing her up, or something that just happened and the families of Lizzie and the murdered boy are victims of circumstance?”

In that regard, Wolf Lullaby isn’t some sort of sermon from the mount on morality and nature versus nurture. Telfer hopes that audiences come away not apportioning blame on the characters, but empathising to a degree with them.

“Obviously that’s not something that we as a community like to think – we tend to want to blame people and factors and circumstances when something like that happens,” she says. “A big theme of the play is, is that possible? And if you were in that position and it was your child, or someone in your family who’d done something like that, then what would you do?”

While she is still a nine-year-old girl in Wolf Lullaby, Lizzie is portrayed by an adult actor. Telfer says this choice by Bell reflects a necessity considering the subject matter and emotional demands of the role at hand.

Shannon Gray plays Lizzie in this production of Wolf Lullaby

“The first time I read the play, I wondered why she wouldn’t cast a child, but the more I read it I realised it was absolutely the right decision because in some ways it would be more distracting for the audience to actually have a child in that role.”

With its small cast and demanding script, Wolf Lullaby is also stripped-back in its approach to staging.

“That’s been a great challenge for Shannon Norfolk, the designing half of Oily Rag Theatre. We’re invoking children’s toys. The set will be made up of large-scale children’s play blocks with letters and symbols on them. And, as the script suggests, a lot of it is done with sound and lighting effects rather than grand sets. So we’re hoping to prove that you can tell a very impactful story without having to use too many bells and whistles.”

Wolf Lullaby
Holden Street Theatres
Friday, May 4 to Saturday, May 12
holdenstreettheatres.com

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