Monday 8 April 2024

Theatre review: Gunter

Keeping the Royal Court busy in the brief perineum period between artistic directors' programmes, Dirty Hare's Edinburgh hit Gunter gets a transfer Upstairs: Created by performers Lydia Higman and Julia Grogan, and director Rachel Lemon, it's the story of a real Jacobean witch-hunt, a subject that's hardly unusual on stage. But while the prejudices and inequalities it highlights are familiar, the way the actual story plays out is full of twists. Opening with Michelle Alise's video design featuring archive clips of those insane traditional football matches where entire villages play against each other in the fields and streets, interspersed with clips of more recent riots and fights, it's hard to miss either the fact that these scenes are entirely male-dominated, or that they're virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Certainly Brian Gunter (Hannah Jarrett-Scott) thought so, and when two young brothers got a bit excitable at one such match at Midsummer in 1604, he showed his disapproval. By murdering them both in cold blood.

As the richest and most powerful landowner in their Oxfordshire village, Gunter gets away with it entirely, but the boys' mother Elizabeth Gregory (Grogan) refuses to let anyone forget what he did. So, of course, when his daughter Anne (Norah Lopez Holden) gets sick, Gunter accuses Elizabeth and two other local women of being witches, and possessing Anne with a demon. With the witchcraft-obsessed James VI and I recently installed on the throne we think we know how this is going to play out, but when a respected local academic catches Anne's "supernatural" behaviour out, Brian finds it's not quite as easy as just pointing at a woman he doesn't like and having her hanged.

Lemon’s style for the production is gig-theatre, with Higman playing various musical instruments at the back of a white set and the performers in all-white football kit – all the better for everything to show up the dirt when it gets covered with mud, blood, sawdust and sundry unpleasantness. There’s anachronistic original songs following the hounding of Elizabeth for her alleged witchcraft and split ends, and Jarrett-Scott’s entertaining James VI and I played as a recovering witch-hunting addict – he promised himself he’d behave once he moved to England but he’s really, really tempted to hang some more random women. I wasn’t sure at first if the show would really develop a distinct identity to me but it’s the story itself that is the MVP: As well as being the composer and onstage musician, Higman is also credited as the company’s resident historian, and is responsible for unearthing this little-known but fascinating piece of history.

We expect to see the three women quickly convicted on flimsy evidence but they’re not, and even the paranoid king doesn’t believe Brian’s story: Both he and his daughter are put on trial for trying to pervert the course of justice. Not that this isn’t still a story about misogyny – the titular Gunter is Anne, and for all the tales of alleged levitation and the pins that materialize from various orifices, it’s noticeable how little anyone actually allows her to speak about the fraud she’s been made complicit in by her father. But this is also about class and money, with a grotesque motive behind Brian’s actions that gives the story a much more solid base than vague misogyny: He’s murdered two children in broad daylight, and not satisfied with getting away with it, he pursues their mother in affront at the very idea that someone in his position should even have his crime mentioned in public. With twists, frustrating questions and even a crossover with the Gunpowder Plot, Anne Gunter’s story is a fascinating find, and the company bring it to life with conviction.

Gunter by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan & Rachel Lemon is booking until the 25th of April at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner.

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