By Cameron Yule
In an early scene-transition in Castle Theatre Company’s production of Foxfinder, a mug and bowl slide off the table and smash on the stone floor. It’s an accident, but in a way it feels indicative of the suppressed violence at the heart of the play – it seems that any small thing can cause a fracture in such a tense atmosphere.
Dawn King’s play is a haunting spectacle, at times an absurdist comedy, at others a deeply chilling examination of the certainties that underpin our existence, and her vision of an agrarian dystopia is well captured by Kimran Rana’s production, whose pared-back staging complements the play’s unrelenting harshness.
Foxfinder shows us a failing countryside, where farmers are failing to meet their production targets and an authoritarian government sends round inspectors to check for ‘infestations’ (a sinister echo of the Nazis’ use of ‘parasite’ to describe Jews). The inspection we see is that of the farm of Samuel and Judith Covey, played respectively by Tristan Robinson and Sarah Cameron, carried out by William Bloor (Owen Sparkes), a mere 19-year-old boy.
The play rests on the relationships and contrasts between these three: between Samuel’s gruff, bearded and stocky farmer, and Bloor’s effete and schoolboy-like demeanour; between Judith’s humanity and Bloor’s monastic removal; between Judith’s pained rationality and Samuel’s aggressive hot-headedness.
The image of fox is slowly introduced into the play, indeed the word itself is not mentioned until the fourth scene. The fox is the product of the government’s inability to solve the agricultural crisis, which has become a war on nature. There is a patent absurdity in the ‘official’ characterisation of the fox as a Machiavellian archvillain – ‘without man, the fox will rule’, Bloor tells Samuel – and it is initially comic, before the passions it evokes turn the mood black.
Equally, the fox represents an overt sexuality which seems to repulse Bloor. Sparkes captures well Bloor’s baffled and revolted response to sex, particularly the way he lingers over the idea of fox-influenced beings as ‘sexual perverts’.
These ideas though are located within a human tragedy – the death of the Coveys’ son, Daniel, hangs over the action: it’s why the farm hasn’t been meeting its quota; it’s left a void in Samuel and Judith’s relationship. And in the Coveys’ neighbour, Sarah (Fionna Monk), we see how circumstance can affect good people, and when she has to betray Sarah’s confidence to Bloor, Monk captures well the horrid situation she’s found herself in: to destroy her friend’s life, or to preserve her own.
Cameron’s Judith is genuinely affecting, portraying the struggle between her need to remain collected and organised and her desire for a cathartic release. Her restrained, even repressed persona is in stark contrast to Samuel, whose converted fox-finding fervour is terrifyingly depicted by Robinson, hinting at an almost psychotic fixation.
Sparkes too is excellent as the slippery, voyeuristic Bloor, and does well to give us glimpses of the inner conflict that eventually engulfs his character. Bloor is insufferably smug and preening, and the obvious class dynamic between him and the Coveys adds another layer of tension to the drama.
It isn’t a perfect production: there is more than the occasional stutter, some of which lose the moment’s intensity; the scene transitions could have been executed more efficiently and smoothly – the smashed mug and bowl are of course an accident, but they suggest the transitions haven’t been practised enough, and more importantly, the fumbling around with the set disrupts the production’s atmosphere: there is nothing tense about a moving a chair about. And for all the suppressed violence in the play, its outbursts sometimes feel poorly choreographed – one scene concludes with Bloor and Sarah shouting over each other, which the chapel’s acoustic renders unintelligible.
These are only small faults, however, and to suggest they detract from the overall production would be disingenuous. The actors are excellent, and on the strength of the play itself, this is enough for the production to succeed. Foxfinder is arresting and challenging, and at this best this production reminds us why theatre can be so powerful: it is subversive, it is daring, it refuses to conform to official expectations. That alone is worth seeing.
Foxfinder is playing on 7th and 9th December at 7.30pm in Norman Chapel, Durham Castle
Photograph: Castle Theatre Company production team