Foxfinder, a play by Dawn King, presents the audience with a depressing tableau. The English countryside is not safe, nor plentiful. The threat of starvation hangs over a chastened, weary land. There are bad harvests, bad weather. Farmers fall behind on their quotas. But still England expects that they will do their duty.
Amid this broader national misery, there is personal drama, one which takes in Samuel (Jontie Honey) and his wife Judith (Lizzie Reeves), whose farm is unproductive and whose lives have been badly shaken by tragedy. The arrival of William, the foxfinder, played to icy, monastic perfection by Eduardo Strike, further complicates matters.
It is his role to find foxes, which in this telling have transcended the role of mere pests and have assumed an almost supernatural position, complete with tales of strange powers and real malevolence. At one stage William, in an almost religious trance, recites a description of the fox as has been impressed on his consciousness by the institute which taught him his craft. His face taut, he spits out increasingly fanciful characteristics in short, staccato utterances.
William’s investigation of the farm, with its piecing together of facts, a perverse reimagining of a detective drama, becomes increasingly about more than just the infestation, bringing in notions of temptation and purity, propaganda and truth, and, most potently of all, madness. Strike’s performance provides the moral and dramatic heart of the play. He is, at first, a confident proxy of authority, but in reality is exposed as boy sent to do a man’s job, a frightened practitioner of a doctrine he comes to doubt – all of which is well-portrayed.
But even the skill of this performance cannot rescue the play from inferior source material. This is heavy-handed allegory disguised as a play, an unashamed morality tale about scapegoating and tyranny. It is almost Black Mirror-esque in its fear of the future, and in the obviousness of some of its messages. Foxfinder is effective given its limited space, which gives a new, claustrophobic edge to proceedings with good set design, audio and lighting. It is tense and engaging, but never quite free from the leaden demands of the dramatist.