Writing about the English countryside owes a lot to the Romantic poets. Seasons of mellow fruitfulness and all that, standing in ruddy-faced opposition to the mechanised Hell of the industrialising cities. But images of bucolic Arcadia tell very little of the reality of life minus urbanity, both historically and today. Simon Longman’s Gundog, receiving its world premiere at the Royal Court in a production directed by Vicky Featherstone, smashes a shit-covered welly boot into the face of pastoral sermonising. There’s not one blade of the green and pleasant land on Chloe Lamford’s mud-glorious-mud set and Little Bo Peep is skinning a freshly born and freshly dead lamb to use its coat for an orphan.
Anna (Rochenda Sandall) and Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) are modern day shepherdesses. Their parents are dead, as is their grandfather following a protracted period of dementia, and their brother is “around”(but nowhere near the farm). Money is near enough non-existent, additional sheep are procured under darkness from where they won’t be missed, and there’s the ever-present threat that, as the prophesying Becky says, one more thunderstorm will bring the house crashing down.
Gloom and fucking doom, you may well be thinking. But against this carcass-covered landscape, Gundog is in parts very, very funny. ‘Contains a dark humour’ is written on one too many press releases, with very few pieces of writing achieving it. Longman’s does because the humour is set against such genuine bleakness and because there’s no attempt to reconcile the emptiness and grief with the gleefully juvenile hilarity. They both just exist: deal with it.
Most of the funny lines are contained in Becky’s rampant, unremitting dialogue, delivered with superb timing and naturalism by Ria Zmitrowicz [aside: My eyes turn into giant hearts each time I see this woman perform in anything]. As rural writing, Gundog bears a similarity to portraits of Great Depression era America. There’s a brilliant subversion of the Steinbeck-style ‘dream’ – the dream that propels you out of the dust and mud and towards money and happiness. But instead of the dream being a few patches of alfalfa and some rabbits, Becky’s imagined meal ticket is a bunch of pandas:
“Aye they’re quality aren’t they? Be minted if you had some of them. Just make them shag each other and sell all the littluns to rich people who want pets of something.”
The funniness and the relentless realism of Longman’s telling of country life allow for the moments when a more poetic vision is offered to avoid sentimentalism. There are lines with a lovely lyricism to them – lines at odds with the rest of the characters’ speech, but their loveliness makes you forgive the minor dislocation.
Longman’s writing come close to voicing the obvious ‘themes’ of the play, like the redundancy of knowing about nature in a concrete-covered world, whilst always skirting blurting it out directly. “I know about the sky,” says Becky. “I can tell you how long the light will take to burn away in the evening. I can tell you how much orange there will be in a sunset. I can see snow in summer. I can see a year in a raindrop.” Or, in possibly the most arresting image, both Anna and her grandfather describe holding the world still by gripping their fingers into “the holes made by the stars”.
There’s also a poetry to how time itself operates in the play, how the years really do go past in the blink of an eye and the past and present are able to keep switching places. This, however, is the fundamentally frustrating thing about Gundog. The play follows the classic structure of starting with a fascinating premise (the two sisters discover a homeless man wandering their land and take him on to help with lambing in exchange for bed and food), but then retreats into a long period of flash-back, predominantly explaining how the sisters came to living as they are. It then eventually ends back in the present with the sisters still there, still awaiting the storm that is to destroy them and their way of life, but with no major development to their situation from the opening.
This is made far more infuriating simply because Longman’s opening scenario and characters are so intriguing. It’s a compliment that I wanted to desperately know the story of their lives now, not to relive what went before. Because treading the same ground isn’t ultimately what Gundog is about. Seasonal cycles keep completing and words are muttered about how the soil has “got all our blood inside it”, but the real horror lies in this all ending, the violent rupture about to occur in separating this last generation from their fields, sky, sheep and silence. Swallows gathering, but this time is the last time.
Gundog is on until 10 March 2018 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details.