Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 15th February 2018
Always a tricky business knowing what to pick out when booking in advance for productions at the Royal Court. Obviously if it is a big name playwright, or someone with previous form, probably best to get in there sharpish and buy blind. For newer writers it is a trickier proposition. Even I can’t justify/manage pitching up at everything they stage but waiting until productions open, or worse still, reviews trickle in, is a losing strategy given the generally high quality of the offer from the world’s greatest “writers’ theatre”.
Now I really liked the sound of Simon Longman’s debut major play Gundog. The blurb suggested a meditation on the rigours of rural life, the passing of time and the impact of a stranger. With maybe the prospect of a twist. Which, broadly, is exactly what it was. Without the twist. We were presented with a stage of mud, lots of mud. (I have seen a few of these indoor fields now: Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Nights Dream at the Young Vic and Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring at Sadler Wells – la di dah. In this case I spent maybe a little too long contemplating how long it took, and who got roped into helping, to get the earth up and down the Royal Court stairs/lifts).
Loud bang, A flash of light and we are presented with a dead lamb, (not real so keep calm animal lovers). On stage are garrulous Anna, holding a shotgun, taciturn Becky, and Guy, who is plainly “not from round there”. Turns out Anna and Becky are sisters who run the failing family sheep farm and migrant Guy Tree, (“no-one can pronounce my real name”), has wandered into their world. He stays to help out. For a few years. Mum died way back. Dad, unseen, is mired in deep depression, mourning for his wife. Grandad is losing his marbles, though with flashes of lucid pathos. The less than prodigal son Ben returns after having conspicuously failed to secure his fortune. He’s even had his shoes nicked.
Time passes. In the first and third acts, forwards. In the second act, backwards. Each act ends with the death of an animal, the final and fourth act with a torrential storm. Disease ravages the flock, perhaps caused by Ben’s ineptitude, and the already precarious economics of the farm unravels. The sisters take to rustling. This is a miserable existence make no mistake. Dad takes his own life. Ben has tried and failed to escape, Becky has no choice, consumed, as she is, by the business of running the farm, Anna sees no point in any other life, she has given up on school, and Guy has nowhere else to go. Certainly not the idyllic arcadia we urban softies might dream about.
Lighting courtesy of Lee Curran, sound from Peter Rice, Chloe Lamford’s aforementioned set and Vicky Featherstone’s direction all work to emphasise this static, invariable world. Mr Longman’s dialogue, which is laced with dark humour, and the structure of the play feels very accurate. Perhaps too accurate for without any shift in tone or plot there are times when this became a little wearing. The idea is laudable, the execution powerful. Just a little too, er, still.
Ria Zmitrowicz as Anna once again caught the eye as she did in Alistair McDowall’s wonderful play X at the RC a couple of years ago. I look forward to seeing Rochenda Sandall again based on this understated portrayal of Becky. Alec Secareanu is a talented Romanian actor who, unsurprisingly, convinced as Guy. Alan Williams was as dependable as ever as grandad Mick and I know just how good Alex Austin, who played Ben, can be from his performance in Thebes Land at the Arcola, though in this he pushes a little at the histrionic.
Definitely worth seeing but maybe Simon Longman’s play is just a little bit too enclosed, as it were. The malleability of time and the power of nature are absorbing themes to explore, (look no further than the stage adaption of the mythic Picnic at Hanging Rock brought to the Barbican by Aussies Malthouse and Black Swan State Theatre). The precariousness and grind of rural existence is also a more than legitimate subject for artistic exploration. Mind you this was more satisfactorily captured by Hope Dickson Leach’s recent debut film The Levelling, which also had its own, mysterious plot (The Levelling film review *****). Still Simon Longman is clearly a writer with real credibility so I await his next move with considerable interest.