Sharp of tooth and riddled with a clawing dread, Dawn King’s 2011 rural drama is a fierce and fabulous beast.
An intriguing elision of the historical past and a dystopian near-future, it conjures a Britain in crisis. The weather has run wild, food is scarce, and communities are divided by superstition, betrayal and paranoia.
Since our world has only grown crazier since the play first appeared at the Finborough Theatre, its themes seem richer and more resonant than ever, Brexit fallout joining the spectres of environmental catastrophe, sectarianism, extremism and totalitarian oppression that lurk in its murky corners and monstrous shadows.
Sadly, it is not well served by this curiously inert production by Rachel O’Riordan. Its compulsive slow burn becomes merely laborious, with what little tension accumulates drained away by a needless interval.
On their remote farm, the Coveys – Samuel (Paul Nicholls) and Judith (Heida Reed) – are caught in a violent struggle with the forces of nature and the terrible destructive power of their own grief. Their land is waterlogged, the harvest rotting, and their young son drowned in the mud.
There is a widespread belief that the nation’s ills are due to a plague of foxes – malicious creatures that stalk the countryside bringing catastrophe and devastation. So now the Coveys are under investigation by a foxfinder – a cold-eyed official with the zeal of a medieval witchhunter, searching for signs of “infestation”. William Bloor (Iwan Rheon) is just 19 years old, indoctrinated from boyhood into his profession at a sinister-sounding institute. He’s a repressed, dangerous man-child who holds the Coveys’ lives in his pale, chilly hands.
King’s writing feels at once wonderfully strange and naggingly familiar, with echoes of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It also seems to anticipate the current modish genre of allegorical horror film – The Witch and A Quiet Place come to mind – so it’s no surprise that she’s currently adapting the play for the screen.
What a shame, though, that this staging drains the blood from it. Gary McCann’s set is suitably dank and dripping, trees encroaching on the Coveys’ farmhouse kitchen, but exterior scenes are played before a cheap-looking painted cloth and the action feels cluttered and lacking in atmosphere.
Simon Slater’s buzzing, plink-plonking soundscape is irksomely intrusive. Both Reed and Bryony Hannah as an anxious neighbour are rather tepid, while Rheon gives a monotonous performance as the self-flagellating, obsessive William that is both ill at ease and frustratingly mechanical. Paul Nicholls, on the other hand, is a superb Samuel, coming psychologically unstitched as pain and guilt overwhelm him and he descends from rationalism into the madness of blind faith. And even in a production this tame, Foxfinder remains a work of dark dazzle.