There is a lot of “yes” in The Dead Dogs. Peppered throughout the circling, repetitive conversations of Jon Fosse’s characters, the affirmative is used not just to answer questions but to introduce, to punctuate, to evade. This sharp, deceptive syllable takes on the character of Pinter’s pauses, standing in for communication and connection. What is nominally acquiescence instead comes across as refusal; an apparent positive is scrubbed out by its bleak opposite number.`
This is characteristic of a drama in which deliberately bland language acquires sinister, unsettling overtones. In the Norwegian playwright’s opaque tale of a family pushed to breaking point, dread creeps up like fog off the fjords. Its first hints come in the form of a missing dog, whose eventual fate might be guessed from the title. Its owner, an isolated and blankly uncommunicative young man living alone with his mother, refuses to go out and look for it; his mother is more concerned about stocking up on coffee for the arrival of her daughter, who is making a rare visit with her husband.
As the lines of this family are sketched with broken speeches and anxious glances, the suspicion of something rotten begins to pervade the unhurried drama. Why is the young man so deeply attached to his dog? Why has his childhood friend suddenly returned? What keeps his sister away? And why is there such hostility towards her husband? These questions and countless others dissolve almost as soon as they are formed, forcing an audience to keep guessing. As one character observes, “there’s something that’s not quite right”, but the precise nature of this wrongness is stubbornly elusive.
The taut, promising tension of early scenes, however, is allowed to fall limp in Simon Usher’s tentative production. Seemingly uncertain about how to stage Fosse’s puzzle of a play, his lacklustre, uneven interpretation gives in to bewilderment. On the page, Fosse’s spare dialogue – all shorn sentences and punctuating pauses – has a spiky sort of poetry. In this version, though, its unfinished statements and looping repetitions become cumulatively deadening, relieved only by long, lingering silences.
The tone is part domestic turmoil, part surreal, heightened discomfort. It is as though a naturalistic family drama has lost its way and found itself in a scorched Beckettian wasteland, unsure of how to proceed. Certain performances, such as Jennie Gruner’s delicate portrayal of the sister, cling fast to emotion despite the alienation of the dialogue, packing each last look with unspoken meaning. Danny Horn’s young man, on the other hand, is oddly compelling in his withdrawn silences, becoming an uncanny presence, while there is a jagged edge of desperation to his increasingly fraught mother in the hands of Valerie Gogan.
A similar sense of confusion haunts Libby Watson’s design, which places clunky, outdated furnishings against garish red walls. The colour choice is almost painfully loud; paired with the bright, blank white light glaring in from the large window, it makes for an eye-watering sort of purgatory, immediately gesturing towards the play’s uneasy psychological landscape. But its textures, like those of the performances, clash in a way that is ultimately more frustrating than it is interesting. There is more than a hint of fascination in Fosse’s odd, perplexing play, but this production makes it increasingly difficult to fasten upon.