The Dog Beneath the Skin is a ‘lost’, rarely performed play by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Whether it can be truly said that Proud Haddock have unearthed a ‘forgotten classic’ depends on how much you like this very singular genre of English farce.
I will admit to knowing little of Auden beyond the eulogy from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but I am an Isherwood fan. His typically absurdist satire is on show here, in a narrative that explores the creeping rise of fascism through one man (Pete Ashmore) and his dog (Cressida Bonas), who roam an increasingly bizarre version of Europe in search of the lost heir of Honeypot Hall.
Google tells me that Auden and Isherwood were school friends, and there is an appropriately Wodehousian accent to The Dog Beneath the Skin. Written in rhyming prose, it frequently feels like something that the two may have written to amuse themselves – or perhaps it just doesn’t land as cuttingly as it might have in 1936. The fast rhythms carry the action through, punctuated by the occasional songs and scenes that are more comic sketches than drama. I have a philistine’s ear for poetry but after two hours of Auden’s couplets and schoolboy humour, it all started to feel less political and more Please Mrs. Butler: ‘Dog in his element, Off at a jog, Out of the gates: Wish I was a dog.’ (Allan Ahlberg)
Designer Rebecca Brower has framed the production as a play within a play, a music hall style stage taking up half the space. It’s a nifty idea but one that doesn’t quite carry through as the second stage is only really played as a stage; an audience with a King, a village hall, a bawdy cabaret. Add to this Jimmy Walter’s rather circular direction (round and round they go, swinging chairs over their heads) and the actors all seem rather crammed in. Bonas makes a very likeable hound but her physical characterisation is unremarkable. The whole concept of a human believably masquerading as a dog is intentionally surreal, and braver choices could have been made as to how her movement could have reflected this. As it is, it’s all a bit when your 4-year-old self decided they wanted to eat out of a bowl and be called Spot (…We all did that right? …. just me then?).
Walter has, however, clearly understood Auden and Isherwood’s vein of comedy and the cast do their best to land the dated humour. Ashmore maintains a straight man persona as the model of an English gentleman but invites very little empathy. Amongst the ensemble, only Rujenne Green stands out in knowing when to go full slapstick and when to dial it back as needed. In direct contrast is Edmund Digby Jones whose tendency to go full throttle is fervent but misguided in giving the same nutty energy to every part (though he does so an excellent impression of Prince Charles).
Isherwood’s genius lies in how he sees the bizarre in the everyday – but also the nastiness. The perfect English village from which Ashmore sets out on his quest becomes the poster of so many other nice little quaint places in the world where terrible things can happen. The fascists don’t start with bursting into your home and dragging out your loved ones. They come in softly, softly with promises of a better life and insidious whispers as to whom you should really blame. Evil rarely starts with kicking down the doors, often it already has a key. But in all the costumes and the clowning and rhyming, this message gets lost. Little asides with outright racist and anti-Semitic slurs are played right along with the comedy, meaning to unsettle you as to what it is you are laughing at. But for a play whose themes should feel incredibly pressing for now, it all seems too belonging to a theatricalised world to be relevant.
*** Post Script***
To the man next to me on press night:
Cressida Bonas is an actor, who once upon a time dated someone in the royal family. Your assertion, made to a complete stranger next to you, that you were covering this play ‘only for the royal connection’ is as ridiculous and outdated as the ‘society’ magazine you write for. Your sneering comment ‘Think, she could have been a duchess, now she’s a dog,’ shows your utter misogynistic ignorance that you think ANY woman would be happier being lauded by the sort of readers you court for their class-climbing marriage than DOING THEIR JOB.
I understand that Bonas drips privilege (even her skin has that lovely glow of the rich and well moisturised), and I know there are many other causes that need my feminist championing. But the anger I felt at you, mocking her, for trying to break out of her stereotype needs to be expressed. Women can’t win – if she did nothing you’d disdain her, if she used her advantages to get a bit-part in Transformers 6, you’d belittle her, and here she is doing pretty damn ok and you aren’t even here for that. You are here for the ‘royal connection’, to pass judgement on her based on a man who isn’t even in her life anymore.
The saying goes ‘better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ – well better that women exist on our own terms, even if that’s crawling on our knees pretending to be dogs rather than standing next to a man as a silent piece of furniture to win your basic recognition. So basically: fuck you.
The Dog Beneath the Skin is on until 31 March 2018 at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Click here for more details.