A lot of cups of tea go undrunk in Tim Foley’s first full length play, a bruising piece of writing about the impact of mental illness on two generations of the same family. The kettle is used to both soothe and diffuse tension and to trigger it. As a dramatic tool, it’s as potent as Chekhov’s shotgun (the play also has one of those).
The Herming family have moved to rural Northern Ireland, to a small farming community and a life of enforced isolation, distancing themselves from the world. Mam has her ups and downs; there are times when she throws herself into projects, doing nothing by halves, whether it be researching the family tree and or collecting gnomes, a whole army of which litter her garden. In between these periods of fever and energy, she slumps in her chair, sleeping too much. Her husband appears to have devoted himself to her. He is calm, patient and attentive, even when her temper flares and fires. It’s clear that this is just the texture of their lives and has been for a while. They’re managing, for the most part, but things start to become unstitched when their son Johnny returns, somewhat reluctantly, from university to pay them a visit.
Things are definitely amiss. Mam dotes on her three dogs – Mickey, Minnie and Marzipan – a trio of slobbering, untrained Baskerville hounds in training. But these dogs go unseen both by the audience and by Johnny, whose own connection with reality seems to be slipping.
Foley writes with acuity about inheritance and family damage. His ability to pin these things down mean the play is an uncomfortable to watch at times and one likely to pluck at anyone who’s ever experienced similar issues within their own family, but that’s part of its strength. He articulates so well the roles people play within families, the mantles they choose to take on: the sufferer, the stoic, the escapee.
It is a play of fine wires, an elegantly constructed thing. The first half does a lot of necessary seed-sowing; it’s in the second half where the true complexity and mess of this family’ comes to light and we discover that their situation is not as simple as it at first seems – but then, is anyone’s? We learn that Paul Stonehouse’s Dad, who is at times gentle to the point of passivity, is more manipulative than he initially appears, and that Maggie O’Brien’s Mam – and her illness – is sometimes blamed for things unjustly. At times all the family members are complicit in their own predicaments. Neither the writing nor Tom O’Brien’s production shy away from ugliness and mess of mental illness – and of families: Mam is hateful and cruel when her blood is up; Dad may not be quite as devoted as he likes to make out.
Johnny’s own mental untethering manifests in the form of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who speaks to him when he is alone, who feeds the building feelings of power he is experiencing, the sense he is all conquering, a builder of empires. While the bulk of the play is faintly askew – much like Libby Todd’s set – these scenes are more fantastical and outlandish. It’s not a switch the production entirely pulls off and they don’t ever feel completely integrated into the play (it probably doesn’t help that Cleopatra’s headgear resembles a kind of glamorous tea-cosy) but they take the audience inside Johnny’s mind and let us see what he is experiencing, the crackle of power, the sensation of might and majesty, which we don’t ever get with the character of Mam.
O’Brien’s production also features one of the more inventive uses of the Old Red Lion space I’ve seen but, dear Lord, do not sit in the far corner of the room unless you want to be eyeheight with a man having a good old trouser rummage while watching porn on his laptop.
The cast do a fine job with the material, particularly O’Brien and Stonehouse as Mam and Dad, her volatile and quick to snap, him ever so measured, almost too cool, but there’s also strong work from Richard Southgate as Johnny and Melanie McHugh as the local farmer who makes a gesture of friendship to Dad and who also has her own emotional baggage.
There are hints of Philip Ridley here in the play’s building sense of menace. I also found myself thinking of The Beauty Queen of Leenane in the way the play explores the family’s toxicity, the way they’re all punishing one another in ways small and large. The use of the dogs – these unseen beasts – as symbols of all the hidden things in this family reminded me to a lesser extent of Anna Jordan’s Yen. But for all that Foley has a clear, strong voice of his own.
The Dogs of War does end up slightly over-explaining itself and while it has a pleasing streak of weirdness, the writing is probably at its strongest when rooting Mam’s illness in the everyday, when dealing with the long-term repercussions, for everyone; the brutal pay-off, though heavily foreshadowed, is still pretty devastating. Troubling as Foley’s play is at times, raw and pink as new skin under a scab, this is a work of considerable insight and emotional complexity, the kind of play which rides home on your shoulder, slowly sharpening its claws.