Royal Court Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018
A newborn lamb lies on the ground. It’s dead. It’s mother will soon follow, but there are others that are still alive or yet to be born, and they need help. Bec and Anna fight for the survival of these tiny creatures as if their lives depend on it.
They do depend it. After doing everything they can to ensure they live, the lambs’ carefully timed deaths bring the women the only income they have. If anything goes wrong in this brief life cycle, they will have nothing. Even the land the sisters live on is barren, their house is crumbling and the rest of the family are a hindrance.
Simon Longman’s new play unblinkingly peers at the precariousness and isolation of contemporary agrarian life and the effects it has on a person. Poverty, mental health, education and violence all feature in this dark, brutally honest script. No punches are pulled, and nothing is hidden.
This isn’t The Ferryman, where hard work and butchery is skipped or placed off stage. This is a family clutching at breaking ropes dangling over an abyss and there’s nothing below to save them.
Constant life or death choices drive the non-linear narrative forward, though even this mundane, desensitised brutality of knife-edge existence becomes repetitive. But in the last quarter of the play, it becomes clear that this is deliberate dramaturgical design modelling the cyclical nature of this lifestyle.
It makes much of the play difficult to watch but becomes a clever device used to force empathy from the audience as the climax builds to an explosion.
Anna, Bec and their family are bored and tired of all of this, too, and everyone must suffer on behalf of those on the front lines of our consumer culture. This suffering is rewarded as each character delivers a stunning monologue of linguistic richness and essential truth that hovers in the air long afterwards.
There’s a good dose of other topical issues that make the world of Gundog feel grounded in the present. Economic migration, anti-immigrant sentiment and emotionally castrated men all feature in what is an inherently feminist play. Though the story focuses on a particularly focused and often forgotten demographic in this country, it speaks critical volumes on our values as a nation.
In the Royal Court’s studio space, Chloe Lamford’s design is aggressively in line with the tone of the production. Two mountains of dirt stretch up to the grey sky and form a carpet of almost-mud. A perspex back wall struggles to contain the fog that obscures the landscape. An ignored radio sits, half-buried on one of the dirt piles. Its screaming silence underscores the characters discussing how their minds disappear into the emptiness around them.
The performances from the cast of five are excellent. Ria Zmitrowicz is the unrelenting, young Bec who lacks restraint or a brain-mouth filter, and as such she’s darkly funny. She’s often brash and unpalatable, but key to driving the action forward. Alex Austin is the rarely seen brother Ben, whose anger and depression make a volatile mix of tangible danger. His pain and tension is riveting. Rochenda Sandall is the strong and silent Anna, taking on the role of mother, father and manager all at once. Her steeling solidity is imposing in its quietness.
There has been a collection of plays in recent years about farming and rural life, ranging from quaint and picturesque to honest depictions of hardship: Cow at Edinburgh Fringe last summer, And Then Come the Nightjars at Theatre503, Richard Bean’s Harvest, and several others. Gundog joins them, standing out in its bleakness, thematic complexity and disarming poetry. This small play has the epic roar of modern canon.