Olivier Award-winning playwright Lucy Kirkwood – she of the mighty, gong-hoovering Chimerica – says she had wanted to attempt a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s short story Lappin and Lapinova for some time. Teaming up with Ben Duke of Lost Dog turns out to have been a smart move to achieve that: working with a dance company means Kirkwood gets access to a new physical language, which distils ideas to poetic potency; meanwhile, Duke gets eagle-eyed dramaturgy that shapes this two-hander into a citric-sharp take on modern relationships.
You can see why Woolf’s rather devastating little tale would appeal to Kirkwood, whose recent NSFW at The Royal Court was a marvellously feisty, modern-feminist alarm-call. Although Woolf’s narrator, Rosalind, can seem helplessly fragile as she charts the sad decline of her marriage, she is making a concerted effort to rise above stifling social convention by creating the fantasy world where she and her husband are Queen Lapinova and King Lappin, hare and rabbit monarchs roaming freely over their wild, natural world.
Kirkwood puts the power more firmly in the woman’s hands in this adaptation. We start out in a club, where Duke’s desperate (and very funny) peacocking as he tries to get the attention of Louise Tanoto’s cool club queen immediately puts him on the back foot. She reels him in by writhing to Mary And The Boy’s Fuck Me and quickly reveals that her ‘Lapinova’ fantasy is already fully formed. Buying into it – and donning the proffered body stocking with furry haunches that matches hers – is a pre-requisite for the sexual fun to begin.
The rabbitty elements of movement start intruding slowly: as the pair sinuously move round the stage in the first passionate stages of their relationship, there are just flickers, such as her springing leaps upwards, where he catches and supports her. Soon, though, it’s clear that she is consumed by this imaginary world, as she adopts the crouching, raised, floppy ‘paws’ and poised head of a bunny as a way to hide from anxiousness, doubt and sadness.
As the dynamic between the pair subtly shifts, the touching vulnerability of both characters comes across well through insightful movement and partner interaction and a smattering of well-placed dialogue. She is a woman struggling to cope with modern societal demands and seeking refuge deeper and deeper inside an imaginary world; he is a man in love who can no longer buy into the fantasy that keeps her happy.
Moments when he asks for a break because his thighs hurt from all the hopping, or when he recites snatches from dull, everyday conversations (a grocery list, ‘no, Spider-Man 2’) are funny but made poignant by her physical recoiling. When he tries to comfort her by placing a jacket round her shoulders, she convulses at the contact with clothing.
The short, sharp shock of Woolf’s tale is swapped for a more sadly inevitable, tragi-comic close. But Like Rabbits is a clever work that burrows under your skin as it tugs at the ties that bind us and asks what keeps couples together.