Monday 6 June 2016

Badgers, Foxes, and Stef Smith’s 'Human Animals'

In a new book, Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain, Lucy Jones explores our ambivalent relationship with foxes, one of Britain’s largest wild animals. We see foxes simultaneously as beautiful mammals to be in awe of and cunning pests that should be feared. And for such a wild animal, they are commonplace in both rural woodland and inner cities. Pigeons are even more ubiquitous in urban, suburban and rural landscapes. There’s a curious amount of contemporary plays which draw upon Britain’s wildlife or which exploits it to explore the idea of environmental disasters as a starting point. From the plays of Jez Butterworth to Stef Smith’s beautiful and intriguing new play Human Animals, here are some thoughts about how often-marginalised rural settings and ideas about wildlife are pervading British new writing.

Dawn King’s Foxfinder (2011), Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral (2013) and Stef Smith’s Human Animals (2016) feature some sort of ecological disaster where nature and animals are taking over the country. In Foxfinder, farmers are worried that an infestation of foxes are going to close their farm and are responsible for the death of their son. In comes the mysterious foxfinder whose prophesises that if foxes are eating up the crops, then it will lead to a shortage of food and therefore deaths. In Pastoral, an ordinary square has become thick woodland turning an area of consumerist living and chain restaurants into a habitat which the residents will have to share with dangerous flora and fauna. Roots burst up through the floor of Zizzi, a branch smashes through the window of Wagamama, a vole walks out of Paperchase, and there have been bear sightings. No one knows why it’s happened but the government has reacted by barricading the whole of the south before it spreads to the north.

Human Animals, currently playing at the Royal Court, is reminiscent of both plays. A sudden spurt in the population of foxes, pigeons and all wildlife for that matter has caused a massive pest problem. Soon enough the town is being shut off, there are fires on street corners and animals are being killed by the authority to avoid the spread of illness. Some characters protest the culls and keep the foxes in the back garden and birds in the loft, whereas some believe the hysteria and don’t want to leave the house. The situation escalates: roads cut off, blackouts, homes destroyed.

The play is delivered in short bursts of scenes between which the catastrophe has worsened. It keeps us fascinated by this strange situation. But we soon become more interested in the effect this has on human relationships, and the short scenes versus the length of the play really allows room for character development. One plot strand focuses on couple Lisa and Jamie. Lisa has just been made manager at a firm who are helping with the ‘clean-up’, helping to kill and burn the animals. Jamie has walked out of his low wage job due to poor working conditions since the ‘break-out’ but has devoted his life since to a higher cause: that of saving the animals and dismissing the scaremongers. It begins to become a weight on their relationship, but they come together in the end seemingly willing to sacrifice their lives for the animals (now including an escaped lion!).

Some critics have had a problem with John (mostly quite a reserved character) pleading with Si to beat him up and sleep with him:

            JOHN: I want to hit you.
                          I want to beat you until you bleed.
                          I want to use my belt (2016, 84).
The way I read it was one of many signs of natural instincts and urges displayed in the play. In the Methuen Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights Middeke, Schnierer and Sierz argue that ‘nature creeps back and… our natural impulses can surprise us’ (2014, xix). In these plays, nature has most certainly crept back and perhaps that explains characters’ visceral natural impulses.

Using animals to reflect the struggles of humans (and vice versa) is also employed in Jez Butterworth’s plays, particularly with badgers. In The Winterling (2006), Draycott persuades city hitman West to join him at a badger culling. We previously hear how one badger nearly savagely bit off Draycott’s toes thus making them part of the unforgiving, dangerous Dartmoor countryside. Yet West passionately turns down the invitation. Here is a man exiled from his home siding with a supposedly vicious animal. In Jerusalem (2009), Tanya has badger shit plastered over her back from sleeping under Rooster’s caravan for the night. Rooster’s home from which he is being threatened to be evicted belies that of a badger. Both are endangered species in their own way. And in Parlour Song (also 2009), one of the weird and wonderful possessions that mysteriously disappears from the cuckolded Ned is a stuffed badger. Whilst his wife is forming a bond with neighbour Dale, Ned is losing his items and therefore questioning his sense of home. As a side note, there’s also a scene in Parlour Song where Joy imagines what it’s like to be mauled to death, something which the final scene in Human Animals quite poetically also envisions.

What’s so brilliant about Foxfinder, Pastoral and Human Animals is that they ground flights into dystopia with very believable, troublesome detail. Current debates about the low pay and gruelling routine of farming can be seen in Foxfinder. Pastoral (which is more comic than the other two) marries mythic visions of England with a contemporary one (touching on the idea of the loss of identical high streets). Finally, Smith, in Human Animals, writes well-realised, very real characters whose more domestic situations run alongside the environmental adversity in the play. She also invokes an us/them mentality and hints at how weak society can be regarding how easily people turn to mob rule. And in a time of this EU referendum, the plays subvert the question of power and make us re-think who this country (and planet) really belong to.

Foxfinder plays at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End from 6th September 2018, starring Iwan Rheon.

This blog was originally published to discuss Stef Smith's Human Animals which played at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, until 18th June, 2016.

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