Gundog at the Royal Court is a gruelling, bleak yet curious new piece written by Simon Longman and directed by Vicky Featherstone. The play begins with a ferocious bang, a deafening blast from the speakers quite literally jolts the audience into attention and the play begins. After the shot of adrenaline to our eyes the play halts, we are introduced to the residents of this land, Becky and Anna played by Ria Zmitrowicz and Rochenda Sandall as they interrogate wanderer Guy Tree played by Alec Secareanu. The dialogue at first feels robotic and devoid of any feeling as Becky’s relentless torrent of thought tumbles out of her. We learn slowly that the two are shepards fallen on hard times. While at first a puzzling interaction, as the play develops the callus nature of the girls is warranted but initially drab. The first scene ends with Guy Tree, a homeless scraper with ‘no where else to go’, agreeing to join them in exchange for shelter and food. The play’s concept of time is deliberately vague as we jump from past to present, each scene ends and begins with a similar blast of white noise as the actors reposition themselves.
The pulse of the play continues along a similar vein, smatterings of humour coming from the inquisitive and incessant Becky up until the introduction of a mysterious man without shoes enters the scene. We learn that after a three year absence, older brother Ben (Alex Austin) has returned to the farm following an unsuccessful quest for a new life. What follows is a break from the initial dark and dreary opening with the introduction of the final cast member Alan Williams playing Grandad Mick. The narrative slowly pieces together as we learn that this family has lost their mother, their father is struggling to cope forcing the siblings to run the farm with Mick slowly turning senile.
The siblings begin to fracture as isolation and silence begins to strain on Ben whom, yearning for a change, begins challenging their choice of lifestyle. This is the real success of the play. Although we know they are set in an open field, the feelings of claustrophobia and isolation are palpable and Longman’s writing offers up a bleak insight into the rural survival devoid of technology and civilisation. The effects of culling the infected sheep begins to take it’s toll as the father kills himself and Ben becomes a volatile wreck. The isolation and bleakness does have undertones of ‘The Shining’ ever so slightly, with no where else to turn they turn to each other for support but find very little in the way of stability. However amongst the stark rural lifestyle of a modern Shepard is the beautifully tender portrayal of Grandad Mick whom injects a biting humour into his scenes. Underpinning the laughs is a challenging commentary on his slow deterioration with a beautiful monologue lamenting his decline yet revelling in the moments when he can remember who his family are. Featherstone’s direction must also be noted, there is little action or movement on stage yet the intensity of the performances doesn’t sag or stutter. Zmitrowicz remains intriguing and develops a youthful innocence as throughout she questions whether she should resign herself to the life she finds herself in. Rochenda Sandall maintains a steely intensity throughout as she clasps at the remains of her life. Alec Secareanu delivers a delicate measured performance, both support the story well. In a current culture addicted to technology and convenient living, Longman’s piece serves a bitter alternative. Deeply fascinating and intricate the text which does require some patience to grasp is a worthy and challenging new piece. - Patrick Riley