Tim Byrne reviews David Whiteley's farewell performance at Red Stitch, a creepy dystopian thriller
Allegory is a decidedly old-fashioned device, and hard to pull off in this self-referential, ultra-ironic age. We tend to be way ahead of the game, reading the symbols before they are even placed in front of us. The trick to pulling it off is complexity of meaning. A symbol should stand for many, preferably contradictory, things. Take a fox, for example.
Samuel [David Whiteley] and Judith [Joanne Trentini] are farmers in an unspoken agrarian future, or possibly medieval past. They lost their only child six months previously in a drowning accident, and have fallen behind in their harvest duties. This would be problematic on a personal level, but in this highly regulated, bureaucratic world it is unacceptable to the nation. Enter William [Matthew Whitty], a foxfinder.
Horrific disasters, mainly of climate, have befallen England and it seems foxes have become the major scapegoat. They are so reviled they have taken on a mythic terror. According to the foxfinders, they can ‘disembowel a grown man with their claws’, and enter people’s dreams. They can even bewitch a toddler and lure him to his death. For Samuel, wracked with guilt over his son’s death, the temptation to blame the foxes for his farm’s woes proves irresistible.
Dawn King’s play contains strong echoes of previous allegory. The Crucible comes immediately to mind, with its paranoid community eating itself, as does Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, with its suggestions of the natural world colluding in humanity’s downfall. Jim Crace’s latest novel Harvest also bears witness. But King finds her own depths in this material. Nature is something to be feared but is also the nation’s food bowl. Farmers are threatened with inhumane factory work, but the farms themselves have become factories, and productivity is paramount. Like all great allegory, it is anti-fascist, anti-communist and anti-capitalist all at once. It’s also fierce and penetrating theatre.
Red Stitch are perfectly poised to pull off a play like this. They have a wealth of acting talent up their sleeves and a playing space seemingly made for the material. Simplicity rules at Red Stitch, and the play’s the thing. Any flaws in the writing have nowhere to hide under this approach. Conversely, great writing is given room to breathe. The tension is palpable from the opening seconds, and it rarely flags.
All the performances are first rate. Whiteley brings emotional gravitas to Samuel and Whitty is excellent as William. His dangerous sexual repression makes me think he’d make a great Angelo in Measure for Measure, and the two roles seem rather analogous. Rosie Lockhart brings a tragic sense of doom to the role of Sarah, wife of Abraham [the biblical names are hardly subtle but do add to the ecclesiastic fervour of the piece]. Her desperate scene with Matthew is one of the best of the night. Most outstanding, though, is JoanneTrentini as Judith.
Judith is the centre of the play, the audience’s proxy. She has to deal with change in all its permutations. And change in Foxfinder is never good. Trentini is everywhere in this production, setting the moral tone and pleading for a deeper understanding.
Peter Mumford’s set design is both functional and atmospheric. The seeping water and turned earth are highly suggestive and, along with some strong lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson and sound design by David Maloy, create a distinctly creepy vibe. Director Kat Henry has done a superb job in extracting as much unease as possible from this frighteningly prescient play. Foxes might never seem the same again.
Read Time Out's interview with outgoing Red Stitch artistic director and star of Foxfinder, David Whiteley.