'The Bounds' review — this unsettling folk-horror Tudor drama uses football to talk about power

Read our review of Stewart Pringle's new play The Bounds, now in performances at the Royal Court to 13 July.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

In Tudor-era football, the goalposts would be placed a mile apart, so it seems amazing that any goals were ever scored. The matches were known to go on for days and there was no health and safety – they were often violent affairs in perilous conditions, but they were also events in which the locals would come together and celebrate their community.

The Bounds, a new play by Stewart Pringle, senior dramaturg at the National Theatre, was first performed last month at Live Theatre, Newcastle, and uses football as its starting point, but it isn’t a football play. It isn’t easy to define exactly what it is about – it’s an underdog story of sorts but certainly not one in which there’s an uplifting resolution.

It’s a strange, multi-layered, at times self-consciously intellectual piece imbued with a considerable amount of grotesque beauty (and surely influenced by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot). It’s set in Northumberland (Pringle’s home county) in 1553, when the fanatically Protestant boy king Edward VI and his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer were tearing up the monasteries in a manner unprecedented even by Henry VIII and reallocating boundaries for their own ends.

The first half largely comprises banter between peasants Percy (Ryan Nolan) and Rowan (Lauren Waine), serving as the defence on the far edge of the village. A match-day morning is filled with hope because nothing has yet gone wrong. Their language is frequently colourful and scatological; it’s apparent that both are bright and witty.

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The arrival of the local squire’s son Samuel (Soroosh Lavasani), Oxford-educated and well-travelled, disrupts the banter. His elegant black silk ensemble is a marked contrast to their peasant dress and his manner is both pompous and childlike.

Jack McNamara’s quietly unsettling production leans into the elemental and folk-horror qualities of Pringle’s writing, which includes visions of four-headed lambs. Designer Verity Quinn sets the action in a patch of mud in the valley where Percy and Rowan have spent their entire lives, but it isn’t a place of safety – we learn that Rowan was tortured and scarred by a scold’s bridle for saying no to one too many “suitors”.

Ultimately, it’s play about the powerless who don’t have agency to shape the trajectories of their own lives. The likes of Percy and Rowan and their communities are collateral damage and canon fodder, while the powerful elite in London have with no interest in them or their communities. It’s all pretty timely in light of an upcoming election.

The Bounds is at the Royal Court through 13 July. Book The Bounds tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Bounds (Photos by Von Fox Promotions)

Originally published on

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