With visual direction by Alonso Pineda and produced by Three Fates Theatre (Zoe Hawkins, Thalia Dudek, and Laura McCluskey), Simon Longman’s play Gundog starts with a bang.
A terrified man named Guy (Alexandros Pettas) is held at gunpoint by sisters Becky (Thalia Dudek) and Anna (Laura McCluskey). We think he has been caught red handed killing a sheep in their paddock. But as this scene plays out, we find it is more complex than that. Guy is desperately scrounging metal to sell to survive. Not only that, but this is not their flock, they themselves are rustlers just as woebegone as he is.
Following a successful run in England, Three Fates Theatre Company presents the Australian premiere of quite an intense play. Set entirely on a rural farm, Gundog has a timeless nature to it. Time itself is the enemy as these characters wait, try to remain brave, and hope that something will change for the better.
As we get to know these girls, we are eventually treated to their back story of heartbreak and why they feel so lost. We see the years of woe and misery which have taken their course which includes the parents who are often mentioned but nowhere to be seen, and their idealistic brother Ben (Andy Johnston) beaten down by years of hardship. Most effective of all is the eccentric grandfather Mick, played beautifully by Dion Mills, slowly losing his marbles and still trying his best to lift his grandkids’ spirits.
“What year is it?” – the loss in the sense of time we believe just affects Mick, however in truth, it affects them all.
The passage of time and flashbacks are presented in subtle yet effective ways. During scene transitions, light and darkness cleverly pass over the stage rapidly establishing the passing of unknown number of months/years, with lighting design by Harrie Hogan. Performers will hold themselves in different ways, the overalls Becky wears the entire show are buttoned differently and so on.
The most ingenious directional choice is the main flashback transition which makes it clear on what is happening without need for overt exposition. The music plays in reverse while the actors make their usual adjustments to props and costumes, walking backwards while doing so.
Likewise, throughout Gundog I appreciated how well simple props, audio cues and actions could turn a snug theatre into vast countryside. The fluffy rolls of wool representing lambs, grazing sheep or the girl’s long-suffering dog all feel genuine. Especially when they’re drenched in blood and there is a lot of this. It is suitably dreadful seeing this pile of bloodied discarded ‘carcasses’ grow ever higher and higher. These act as an ever-growing tally of the hardships of a life our characters cannot escape from.
Across the board, the 5-person cast are wonderful with each running a gamut of emotions. Johnston’s Ben explodes onto the stage right as we are settling into a groove with our initial trio. His fiery temper and frustration at life brought forward with passion.
Mills steals the show for a large part as Mick. His monologue on how he wishes he could literally stop the world from turning for his family’s sake is a pivotal moment.
Dudek shows the most range throughout with lines of black humour from the outset., only for it to be clear that this vulgar humour is merely Becky’s coping mechanism built up over the years.
Gundog showcases an existential pessimism of the so-called ‘simple life’. A brilliant cast of performers transform the intimate stage into an emotional roller-coaster. Bravely jumping around in time and being confident in its ability to do so coherently. While heavy on the subject matter, this production deserves to be witnessed for both its striking performances and its overall emotional depth.
Gundog is now playing at Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne until the 13th of November 2022.
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Photography by Zoe Hawkins.