We never see a waking moment, and that’s this play’s strength, and its side-stabbing thorn. We are wonderfully immersed in a dreamspace – our well-dressed white male protagonist with a plummy voice (Michael Edwards) realises in medias res that he is lost at night on a street he doesn’t know. He remembers eating oysters with his friends earlier, but he can’t remember their names.
In the street with no name, a man whistles for a dog that has ripped its leash to threads. The wolves have come further into the city this year, he says. Our protagonist does not help the man look for his dog, and instead winces at his whistle. Why wouldnt he just help? Soon the dog has joined the wolves, and everything starts to go very wrong indeed.
The syrupy timeless headache of dreaming is rendered excellently in this production, with Beth Park and Stephen Ventura reappearing again and again in new guises populating the dream, which takes place over an interminable night which stands still as often as it ticks past, full of identical (but dangerously different) sisters, smiling cannibals, talking animals and frontline care service personnel.
Conservational routines are not just flaunted, they are forgotten, never existed here, which is creepy to an extent that even Pinter’s characters rarely summon up. But the words are not even half of the challenge of this particular dream. A scene is more likely to end in a stabbing (from that one brutal, kitchen Knife of the title) than a querulous tone. In fact, there are more stabbings in The Dog The Night and The Knife than in any other play I have seen, gangland-set Shakespeares included.
It’s a very difficult thing to pull off on stage, and that syrupy timelessness only gets us so far. As our hero knifes his way through the night, visiting a home, a police station and a hospital (but dreaming, we naturally realise that we’ve been in the hospital all along) we get further from the only touchstone of meaning the play gives us. We have nothing of this dreamer but his fiercely questioned oysters. Every other character is a shade, a reflection, or an ironic texture. We have only the tame dog tearing free to join the wolves. When we finally get back to him, and meet that dog still noosed by his half leash at the end of the play, we get back to the crux of the matter as he barks: “Sit is over. Sit is broken. Sit doesn’t mean anything.”
I struggle to believe that Mayenberg’s point is to sympathetically protagonises a privileged dominant class in the nightmare of a powerful working class rebellion. But that’s the sort of place my mind went during the play. And has stayed since. There wasn’t enough thee to support that reading, but there wasn’t anything to destabilise or supercede it either. The production felt most commonly like a big luminous barrier to a text that felt unfinished, even by the imprecise standards of dreams. I wanted to wrestle with a production that too crude when I needed quiet, and too indecisive when I needed a guiding hand. Instead, in the dreamscape created by director Oliver Dawe, we hallucinate meaning. It’s an approach which could be powerful, but as we unconsciously search for the right way through the play, we need something else – character, story, poetry, to step into the breach and keep us pushing along. And there isn’t. What humour there is there is in the text goes awkward unplayed and the audience look almost guilty in their discovery of it.
German playwright Marius von Mayenberg’s last original UK outing The Ugly One was one of my first experiences of the Royal Court – a short Downstairs run of their Upstairs production in 2008. It has stayed with me, although I knew so little about what I was seeing that I for many years thought of it as a rehearsed reading, with the poor actors doubling up on a bare stage and not even given proper costumes. Now I know to call that ‘sparse’, but back then although my age was not that tender it was new and I was excited by the way this un-theatrical (as I saw it) production supported the play so well, an odd fable about identity and plastic surgery which has stayed with me, and only seems to grow more relevant as time goes by. The text was as free of frills as the production, all idea, all explored but un-expounded metaphor, all taut cruel humour.
All this is merely to explain why I was excited to see the UK premiere of The Dog, The Night and The Knife at the Arcola, and why even though I don’t think von Mayenberg’s latest play is especially good, and found the production uneven, I am relatively happy being utterly perplexed by it and giving it room enough in my head for some of its wafting ideas to fester; I have been here before. At the same time, where The Ugly One felt perfectly formed with the interplay of its suggestive text and staging, The Dog, The Night and The Knife needs a greater commitment from the production, or from the text, to narrow the choice of meanings we can pull out of the performances, to channel those meanings, and thereby reap the same dividends.