At the top of the Royal Court lies an unrelenting stillness. Simon Longman’s Gundog occupies the space that was the Jerwood Theatre. Now it’s heaped in mud and a silence that left my teeth in an anxious grind long after the performance. This is the haunting story of a family struggling against a cycle of rural poverty. “Time moves” Mick (portrayed by Alan Williams), the grandad of the family, points out. And yet none of the characters can move with it. Haunted by ghosts of deaths and suicides, they are unable separate themselves from the patch earth that is steeped in their family’s blood, literally and figuratively.
As the title suggests, a brutal animalism is at the heart of this play. Its intensity heightened by the jarring soundscapes that break up the play’s harsh tableaux. At first, I reel at the assault on my ears, never mind at the mauled animal carcass that remains on stage throughout, a reminder of the characters’ long march to the inevitable. But soon I, like the characters, am desensitised, in an effect almost reminiscent of the Theatre of Cruelty.
However, this play is not mere ‘pain porn’, like a theatre version of Iñárritu’s The Revenant. There are moments of black humour, especially from Becky, the younger sister (brilliantly portrayed by fast- talking Ria Zmitrowicz). At first, I perceive a dark comedy at work, though it becomes more and more apparent that her crude jokes and cutting jibes are a cover for the constant stream of micro and sometimes macro violence, that she witnesses. Though the play jumps around in time, Becky’s jokey lines die out as the drama progresses, intensifying the deafening quiet. Her older sister meanwhile, has assumed parental authority. Her steadfastness is sensitively depicted by Rochenda Sandall, as an attempt to mask her anger, fear and loss.
Although the tenderest monologue of the drama is delivered movingly by Mick, it seems obvious to employ an elderly character suffering with dementia, in play that hinges on time and memory. It’s more compelling to see how bouts of confusion affect the younger characters, as this is a far less laboured trope. It’s more heart breaking to hear Becky repeat her grandad’s line, “What year it is it?” as the children are losing out on the present and the future, as well as the past.
The family’s fragmentation is witnessed by Guy (Alec Secareanu), an immigrant, whose name suggests his lack of character. He is transience embodied. Unlike the other characters, he fails to move beyond a single identifier. This is a shame as he feels a little more than a shell, especially when compared with Becky and Anna. Happily, unlike the women in recent Royal Court success, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, they feel like characters rather than women-characters. They are not defined by their gender. Similarly, Mick has a strong personality (though this may be more to do with William’s acting than Longman’s script), yet he is defined by his age.
The playwright can do better than reducing Guy to a receptacle for Ben’s xenophobia (powerfully brought to life by Alex Austin). This is the only element that feels a shallow, a knee-jerk reaction to Longman’s barely pencilled in character. The exploration of rural poverty is so visceral that it further highlights the lack precision, in Longman’s slap-dash portrayal of the plight of immigrants. Even when characters are symbolic they needn’t feel hollow, illustrated by William’s A Street Car Named Desire, a play that supersedes Gundog’s emotional power due to its fusion of metaphor and character. Though Guy has moments where he is a foil for other characters feelings and even his own monologue, he doesn’t add anything significant to the drama.
The emotional depth of Gundog, despite its faults, is immersive. This is due in no small part to Vicky Featherstone’s direction. The phrase “it’s nobody’s fault” echoes, from character to character, throughout the play. This magnifies the drama’s cold-snapping pace and its circularity, it’s nobody’s fault the characters are left behind. And yet, the depiction of destitution is an indictment. It begs the question, who is to blame for rural poverty in Britain? A question ignored or unconsidered by urban dwellers like myself. This play deserves to be seen, if only to feel it’s electricity.