Theatre Review: Gundog at Royal Court ‘A Dark, Almost Nihilistic Play on Modern Rural Britain’

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There is nothing about Gundog that will make you feel good about where we are today. It is a dark and disturbing tale about the state of play in rural Britain. That means it won’t be for everyone, but I was mesmerised, seduced by the intensity of the its darkness, and haunted by its message of what so many in the cities wilfully choose to ignore.

Death stalks this production; its presence haunts each element, from the grossly misshapen ewe carcass that is slung back and forth across the stage, to the piles of dirt that swamp the stage, from the living dead whose lives we follow, to the actual dead they speak of. From the death of morality and compassion as outsiders are attacked, to the very death of rural communities themselves.

There is no break of sunlight in this gloomy scene, and even the earth under the characters’ feet is so robbed of nourishment that not even a blade of grass can be seen. This is a dying earth, and it is a dying community that lives on this land.

The focus of this play is one family, or rather, the fragmented remains of it. Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) should be at school but, instead, she lives in delapidated house with her older sister, Anna (Rochenda Sandall). Their mother is dead, and their dad may as well be. Their granddad has lost his mind too, his dementia increasingly problematic. This leaves the two women with no option but to shepherd what’s left of their flock. Certainly their older brother, Ben (Alex Austin), is of no help. He is desperate to leave this hell-hole and his presence is an unwanted antagonism.

But when their sheep are decimated, the women go from shepherding to rustling – a dangerous business. One accentuated by the fact that Anna’s shotgun is so omnipresent as to be almost a natural extension of her own body. But when a vulnerable refugee, an immigrant, calling himself Guy (Alec Secareanu) stumbles into their territory, the women may finally find some connection with the outside world. Only his presence brings out a nasty side in others.

Vicky Featherstone directs, and I love the fact that she plays this at almost a relentless pace. It isn’t fast but there is no respite. It drags you in, and I loved it. Time never ends, you can never slow it down, and that comment is made perfectly. But for all this play’s gloom, its language and its performances are brilliant.

Ria Zmitrowicz is a wonder. She is utterly sublime as the straight-talking Becky, the kid amongst the adults but the only one seemingly able to hold it together, and the only one with enough tendresse left to offer emotional support and encouragement to those who need it. And, in comparison, Rochenda Sandall is terrific as her stoic older sister, Anna, who slowly crumbles under the weight of the never-ending distress.

Simon Longman’s text is excellently crafted, with moments of comedy and gallows humour weaved in with the darkest of tragedies and moments of such violent thoughts, I had to look away. But there are also passages of almost poetic beauty, where the longing to escape, to find a life away from this place where there is nothing to live for but the slow march to death, is finally put into words:

“If I could you know what I would do? I walk to the top of that hill in the night. I would stand really tall. Dig my feet into the earth and tie them there with the trees. And I would reach up into the sky and put my fingers through the holes made by the stars. And stop everything turning. Make time stop. Enough for you to be brave.”

A sense of otherworldliness is created by not having these scenes played strictly in sequential order. It throws you at first, until you pick up the thread. The decision to do this was clever; it encourages the sense that we are in a form of altered reality.

That feeling that we not quite anchored in reality is accentuated by the dementia of the old man – his sanity not quite gone but fades in and out, much like the world outside this group. Is this a warning of what’s to come as much as a pull back on the middle-class curtain, exposing rural poverty we do not see? Maybe. But either way, these are worrying times. And this is a powerful production.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to March 10, 2018.
All production images by Manuel Harlan.

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