Interview | Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon | Gunter

Interview with Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan & Rachel Lemon


Royal Court Theatre

 Wednesday 3 April – Saturday 25 April 2024

Fringe First award-winning Gunter produced and performed by Dirty Hare is based on the true story of a witch hunt in 1604, Gunter takes a moment of thrilling, forgotten history and turns it on its head. Using live music and dazzling spectacle, Gunter interrogates the art of performance and who holds agency in storytelling. It explores male power, ego and the way suspicions of the supernatural were weaponised to oppress women, in this real-life tale of abuse and fear set in the idyll of a country scarred by witch trials.

After its success at the Edinburgh Festival last year, it will run at the Royal Court Theatre next month. Co-creators Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon from Dirty Hare discuss their creative process, the story’s historical roots, and what audiences can expect from the performance.

How would you describe Gunter?

Rachel: I would describe Gunter as an explosive, caring and rigorous reconstruction of Anne Gunter’s story. It is bodily, strange and full of life. It is probably too loud – but we think more is more is more. I would describe Gunter as a love letter to Anne Gunter, as an attempt to recover her. It is a process of wrestling with the archives; grappling with the records, with forgotten history and memory.

Why did you want to tell this story?

Lydia: I first read Anne’s story during my history undergrad and was floored by it. I couldn’t believe the fallout of events – how calculating her father was, how high the stakes got, how unimaginably scary (and or thrilling!?) it must have been for her. There was something automatic about the story-telling aspect of it because it was rooted in such clear aspects of human behaviour (the desire for power, ego, masculinity, elite vs popular thinking). I think in the first instance the desire to tell the story came from the fact that the story was an unbelievable one.

Following this, I think there is an inherent theatricality to the spectacle of possession that felt like a big exciting challenge for us. It was a big unlocking to think of Anne as a performer on her own terms – she was demonstrating her so-called ‘possession’ to a room of people who came to watch to be entertained/horrified/moved… There’s a historian called Brian Levack who wrote a great thesis on this. Connecting those dots to Anne’s story was a big unlocking.

You talk about how ‘history rhymes’. Please could you expand on this, and how it connects to this play?

Lydia: This is actually a quote from Margaret Atwood – it’s a clever take on the age-old cliche that history ‘repeats’. I suppose the notion of rhyming is slightly subtler, and requires more attention to (and interrogation of) our context. Of course history can’t literally repeat – circumstances are too varied, the world changes too much, the 16th century is unrelatable in so many ways… Yet there are consistencies in behaviours and power structures that rhyme if you’re listening. That’s what is striking about Gunter – the circumstances are wildly different to the world we recognise, but there is a rhyming pattern to Anne’s experience that is darkly familiar today.

The three of you co-created the show together. What has the creative process been like? What were some of the challenges?

Julia: Making as a three has always been a total joy. We’re all good mates and we all share the same vision for the work we want to make. We all come at it from slightly different angles which makes it Dirty Hare, but also means we all have a slightly different process.

We’re a director, writer-actor and a historian-musician-writer and so we do have different ways of working. At the start we needed to check in a lot with what we each needed for our own process in order to feel good. We were blessed with incredible, generous creatives along the way; Norah, Hannah and Letty who helped us carve out the show. A challenge was getting thinking space in London, space is expensive. We once went down to Cornwall and spent the week writing, playing volleyball and getting nailed by rain. We made most of the show in the peaceful Tottenham Quaker house. We knew that in order for the work to be good and to speak to audiences we needed to show it as much as possible. And so we invited trusted mates to come in for sharings and feedback. Rachel is amazing at that, I was terrified. But I learnt that to make the best work you have to kill your ego and share the messy crap bits to find the magic!

What surprised you in making this show?

Rachel: I am constantly surprised by Anne Gunter’s story: and that usually the truth is far, far wilder than anything we could have made up.
I also think normally I am a believer in long processes, where things are allowed to ruminate and grow and develop over time. Whilst that is still a process I long for, we actually made Gunter very very quickly. We decided officially to make it in January and were going to Edinburgh that summer. And I am surprised about how useful that time pressure was. We always intended to make it quickly, because we were feeling frustrated about how slowly everything was moving for us and how difficult it felt to put work on. And actually the challenge of having a date when you knew you were going to have to do a show, but not yet having a show, really pushed us to make creative decisions. And I think good decisions (sometimes, not always). There are parts we could have ruminated on forever and ever, but I am surprised at how useful that gentle pressure was – we made it quickly and bravely.

Lydia, is this the first time you’ve been in the cast as well as on the writing side of a Dirty Hare show? If so, how has that experience been for you?

Lydia: Pretty terrifying, to be honest!!!! But going on stage with Norah, Julia and Hannah is an absolute gift. We always have a big hug before we go out and in truth it’s always a bit of a dream to be on stage together. It’s important to connect to the purpose of the show. I just think: this isn’t about me, it’s about Anne and her story and that is why I am here. Also
Rachel is such an amazing facilitator that I feel really held. Whilst it’s been so much fun to work on, I’ve got to say that I might just stick to co-writing the next one. Better for blood pressure.

What do you want audiences to take away from Gunter?

Rachel: Witches have haunted the human imagination with remarkable persistence, and we hope people can walk away with a slightly more grounded, real-world understanding of what was behind the complexity of accusations.
We hope people walk out into the night after seeing Gunter, holding the final image of Anne in their head, and go and have a good old messy dance. Or, failing that, tell a friend that Anne Gunter existed and tell them what happened to her.

Can you talk a bit about the music in the show?

Lydia: The music has always been a strong engine of the show. It was developed at the same time as all of the other material for the show rather than being added on at a later stage. Actually, lots of the music existed first before anything else. We use it to connect to the more bodily and darker moments in the play: to help transport the audience to a different, stranger place. The music has always been really useful for us as an ensemble. We sang it together every morning of rehearsals which really helped us to stay live and connected, because if you don’t listen, it will sound bad. We hope the music is sometimes an easier entry point into empathy and into understanding. People speak so much in theatre: if in doubt, make it a song.

What does it mean to have your show transfer to the Royal Court?

Julia: It’s an absolute dream come true. We promised when making the show that we wouldn’t think too far ahead or dream big, we’ve been stung a lot by disappointment in the past! So it was outrageously exciting to be programmed. The RC means a lot to all of us. I (Jules) worked on the bar for a long time and would constantly fantasise about having a play upstairs. It’s a space very close to Rach’s heart too and for Lyd, I guess it’s all still a bit shocking that we convinced her to get up on stage full stop.

Gunter is directed by Rachel Lemon and the cast includes: Julia Grogan, Norah Lopez Holden (Hamlet (Young Vic)), Hannah Jarrett-Scott (Pride and Prejudice (*sort of), Outlander) & Lydia Higman. It will run at the Royal Court Theatre in London between 3rd – 25th April 2024