In the winning offering from this year’s Papatango New Writing Festival, all is not well in the country. In the isolated and typically wet depths of the English countryside, the foxfinder of the title is investigating a bad harvest and a run of misfortune at the farm of Samuel and Judith Covey, a grieving couple who have recently lost their young son. As foxfinder William Bloor gradually investigates the sceptical husband and wife and searches their land for evidence of a “contamination” by the sly, bushy-tailed creatures, the beliefs of all the characters come under pressure and attack.
The world that playwright Dawn King has meticulously crafted is one in which the skulls of animals or wool tangled in a fence can be read as signs and there is no such thing as bad luck. These disquieting elements are all wrapped up in the figure of William, raised from a young child for his enshrined role and realised as an other-worldly presence by the suitably eccentric and wiry Tom Byam Shaw. While his performance occasionally falters, there is a dulled emotion behind his eyes and a robotic flavour to his voice that speak powerfully of the brainwashing he has undergone at the sinister Institution.
For all the talk of propaganda and arrests, however, there is a distinctly earthy texture to King’s dystopia. Gyuri Sarossy’s quietly tortured Samuel and his determined but desperate wife Judith, played with delicate grief, anxiety and tenderness by Kirsty Besterman, are country folk through and through, grounding this vague horror firmly within the homely farm setting. These rarely united opposites add to the taut sense of discomfort cultivated by King’s tightly-written script and Blanche McIntyre’s intelligent direction, an air of tension that is heightened by George Dennis’ chillingly atmospheric soundscape.
Although the characters in this odd and unsettling tale may appear to inhabit an unfamiliar world, there is a disturbing resonance to King’s parable. For all its strangeness, this is recognisably our native countryside – “quintessentially English”, as William puts it. There are also unnerving parallels between the finger pointed at the mythical figure of the fox by those in power and our society’s current blame game as we try to haul ourselves out of economic disaster. King might as well have had her investigator hunt down a scapegoat. Even more universally, as an increasingly agitated Samuel starts to see things and William’s strict education is challenged, Foxfinder provides metaphors for questioning the very nature of what we choose to believe in.
This gripping, haunting production is something of a home-grown project for the miraculously fertile Finborough Theatre, nurturing the talent of both new Playwright in Residence King and previous Leverhulme Bursary beneficiary McIntyre. Unlike the unfortunate Samuel and Judith, however, they have produced a bumper crop.