Foxes, like them or loathe them, are plentiful. Exciting new plays are harder to find, though the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earls Court is always a good place to start looking. Foxfinder by Dawn King is a tautly constructed 90-minute four-hander set in a half-familiar, half-strange rural England where foxes have been wiped out.
Nobody sees them, or even their prints in the mud. But the animal lives on as The Beast, a malign spectre which can ruin crops, poison dreams, lure children to their deaths and rip people to pieces with its claws. Into the isolated farmhouse of Samuel and Judith Covey comes William Bloor the Foxfinder, an intense 19-year-old on a mission to root out 'contamination'. He's never actually seen a fox but has been indoctrinated against them since the day he was taken from his parents to an institute at the age of five and taught that 'England' is his mother.
It's a big ask for the audience to make the imaginative leap and swallow this tale of something nasty in the woodshed. And it's a tribute to the quality of Dawn King's writing that the play succeeds brilliantly on several levels. It's intentionally vague about time and place; the accents are West Country, but no towns are mentioned to give us a fix on our location. The period and clothing is sort of 20th century -- there is food rationing in the cities -- but there are echoes that come from further in the past, such as the farmer's muzzle-loading weapon. The traverse set is admirably sparse, furnished with just a single chair. Despite some spooky music, the play's mounting tension owes everything to its excellent construction, which brings the drama to a tense and pacy climax. The key to its believability lies in the finely drawn characters. Gyuri Sarossy and Kirsty Besterman, playing the Coveys, are totally convincing in their portrayal of a couple hovering between belief and disbelief and battling forces which are more powerful than they are. Becci Gemmell is Sarah their neighbour, also a victim of an Orwellian system of thought control. Tom Byam Shaw radiates an extraordinary intensity as William, the black-garbed seeker of foxes, the fanatic whose faith suddenly starts to waver. The wordy phrases he uses ('quintessentially') convey the essence of a youth whose Achilles heel is that he has no experience of real life; one can see him as a Cromwellian Bible-basher mortifying his own flesh, an Islamic fundamentalist, a Jesuit footsoldier of the Inquisition, or a Stalinist young commissar sent to hunt down Trotskyite deviations on a collective farm where the quotas are not being met. The play allows us to make our own connections and read into what is happening on stage exactly what we want.
Dawn King's writing is reminiscent of David Harrower's Knives in Hens in its intensity; it also brings to mind Jez Butterworth's The Night Heron, another play about religious fanaticism. It doesn't quite have the Shakespearean richness of Butterworth's Jerusalem, but it inhabits some of the same territory in its questioning of the mythic roots of the English countryside. To write a play about foxes which leaps over the sterile debates about banning foxhunting is a great achievement; this is a play about belief and rationality, about delusion, manipulation, suggestion and betrayal, about fear and honesty, about the creation of imaginary demons and the temptations of the flesh. 'If we lose, England will starve,' William tells his hosts, warning of 'the spectre of starvation that haunts our land'. At times he is like a father confessor in his questioning, at times like a doctor when he interrogates the couple about how and when they have sex. At one moment he refers to Judith as 'my patient'.
This play has come to the Finborough as the centrepiece of a festival of new writing organised by Papatango, a group new to me. I believe the National Theatre also had a hand in the process. It runs until 23 December but if there is any justice in theatreland it will transfer to a bigger space. 2011 has been a great year for theatrical revivals, but for me at least, a disappointing year for new plays -- until this one came along. I have no idea if there are any tickets left, but do try to see it.