After almost a decade as the company's artistic director, and twelve years as an ensemble member, David Whiteley last week announced that he is parting ways with Red Stitch Actors Theatre, the most productive and consistently high-quality ensemble theatre Melbourne has seen in many years.
His last role will be as Samuel Covey, the baffled famer at the centre of UK playwright Dawn King's dystopian thriller, Foxfinder.
Foxfinder is a fascinatingly original piece that has delighted and disturbed audiences since its English premiere in 2011. Set in a non-specific rural location, it presents a world in crisis. Crops are failing, the weather has turned treacherous, and foxes – although practically extinct – are objects of superstition, believed to stalk the land leaving death, destruction and moral corruption.
Now Samuel and his wife Judith are under investigation by William Bloor, an ascetic young foxfinder sent by the government to discover why the farm has failed to meet its quota targets.
In Bloor, coolly convinced that sin must be the cause of it, there is the echo of a witch-hunting fundamentalist at Salem. It's a connection amplified by Dawn King's forceful, poetic style, one reminiscent of the great Arthur Miller.
"Although there are a lot of differences, it very much recalls the artifice of something like The Crucible," says Whiteley. " It was a question for us, where to set it, given that this is an Australian production, and we did think about a kind of New England accent. It's a play that could be set anywhere, in Africa, or North Korea."
But though there are thematic and poetic connections with The Crucible, there are nearer parallels to the dystopian science fictions of Caryl Churchill, plays which are less epical, but in their own complicated equally haunting.
"There is the idea in this play of a society that either has abandoned modern technology or never knew about it," says Whiteley.
And, as with a play like Churchill's A Number, it isn't always clear whether this is a political fantasy-thriller or a tragi-comic science fiction or some other discomforting combination. What to make of a world where the humble fox is demonised as the cause of all our woes?
"It's not clear. There are comic aspects to it. It's very Orwellian, in a sense. It's a fable on belief, where belief is a kind of madness," says Whiteley. "At the beginning, my character has lost his faith. The foxfinder arrives and brings a sense of certainty. By the end, we've switched places."
To say that belief is a kind of madness necessarily implies that to be human is a kind of madness. "To live," says Whiteley, "you must have some sort of ideology, something to hold onto, otherwise there's chaos. That's sort of my character's journey. He cannot survive without belief. In a way there's no alternative."
Thus, the contrast in Dawn King's play is not between belief and rationality, but between belief and chaos.
"Belief is like a survival mechanism," says Whiteley. "It's not something that you choose to do."
Foxfinder is a fine example of the kind of play which Red Stitch have built their high reputation on under Whiteley's direction.
"It's text-based naturalism, but also a little odd, similar in some ways to Richard Bean's Harvest or Jez Butterworth's The Night Heron," says Whiteley, recalling some of the great Red Stitch productions from the beginning of his tenure. "Red Stitch has a very clear position and purpose. Fashions come and go."
So, falling just short of ten years' service, why is Whiteley leaving now?
"I'm just a bit tired," he explains. "I guess it's an exercise in making space in my life. And it's the right time. The company is building a new foyer, there are new ensemble members, and there's a real sense in the company of renewal and excitement."
Taking his place as company figurehead is actor Ella Caldwell, who has been with the group since their very first production and stepped in as acting artistic director a year and a half ago when David was on parental leave. Does Whiteley have any advice for Caldwell as she faces up to the challenge of running an independent theatre and venue?
"Don't be swayed by criticism," he says. "A lot of people will want to give you advice. That just shows that you're doing well, that people are interested."
This will be Foxfinder's Australian premiere, and it opens on July 19.
Foxfinder, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 19 Jul-17 Aug