Writer: Simon Longman
Director: Vicky Featherstone
Reviewer: Sophia Moss
Gundog is a bleak, emotionally exhausting tale of poverty, loss and loneliness set in the deafening silence of a decrepit farm in the middle of nowhere. Dealing with heavy themes like dementia, suicide, poverty and the discrepancies between rural and urban life, Gundog will change your perception of the countryside forever.
The play follows Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz), Anna (Rochenda Sandall) and Ben (Alex Austin), three siblings working as shepherds on an increasingly isolated farm, and shows how their lives are slowly ripped apart as everything around them dies. Gundog, performed upstairs in the Royal Court’s five-row Jerwood theatre, opens with a deafening roar of clattering noise which is used throughout the play to highlight the deafening silence of isolated rural life. The stage is level with the audience and is covered with mounds of earth. The background screen is used to reflect the changing times/seasons.
Gundog does not start well. The opening dialogue sounds more like a script then a genuine conversation; the quick exchanges which work well later are unconvincing here and the actors sound like they are in a rehearsal, reading a script they are not familiar with. The dialogue between Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Guy (Alec Secareanu) feels more like a fast-read monologue and is delivered in the same tone throughout.
Things improve, however, in the second scene. Zmitrowicz improves drastically and becomes convincing as an ever-hopeful yet constantly anxious young girl who is in dire need of reassurance. Rochenda (Anna) gives a strong performance as the older sister who is buckling under the responsibility of running a failed farm. Alex Austin (Ben) plays an unsympathetic, slightly sinister character, but he delivers an emotionally charged performance and seems to be the only character who is aware of how dire their situation is.
Gundog’s treatment of dementia is particularly strong. Alan Williams (Mick) is sad and hilarious in equal measure as he keeps telling the same lurid and fantastical stories from a pub that closed five years before, but he is also the most self-aware and likeable character in the play. The writer (Simon Longman) did something very impressive; he gave a character with dementia a voice and agency, something which is often missing from representations of this illness. Mick’s knowledge of his impending mortality made some members of the audience cry with the lines: “I know my mind’s falling apart inside my head … I’m just happy right now that I can look at each of you and my mind hasn’t forgotten who you all are just yet. And that’s good. Because I know when I die you’ll all be there. But to me I’ll die with strangers.”
Another impressive aspect is Ben’s (Austin) Brexit-style racism. Ben’s very limited shepherd skills are not appreciated in the wider world so the brother’s increasing desperation and insecurity is taken out on the ‘foreigners’, particularly the lodger Guy Tree (Secareanu) who in a short space of time has become a much better shepherd then Ben ever bothered to be. This attitude is never excusable, but the play shows how desperation and limited options can affect a person and creates a degree of sympathy.
The play is ultimately tragic because the audience knows that Becky is right when she says the family will stay on the farm until it kills them because there is nothing else they can do. This family is trapped in a silent rural hell where the years have no meaning because their skills are not applicable to this century. There is no way they can escape. The audience is not filled with warm fuzzy feelings and a new-found appreciation for the countryside, but they have been exposed to a way of life most will never see.
Runs until 10th March 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan