Saturday, May 30, 2015

'Dogs of War' at the Red Lion Theatre, 29th May 2015

Dogs of War is high concept stuff. The conceit is a young man bedevilled by invisible dogs. Everyone else can see them, he can't. It feels borne of 5am insomnia, an idea kindled into a powerful and bizarre play. The result is a weird cocktail of down-at-heel kitchen sink drama, warped hallucinogenic comedy and social commentary - hard to pin down or  neatly categorise.

Set in rural Northern Ireland, we explore the woes of a troubled family who've escaped England for the peace and anonymity of the countryside. Mam (Maggie O'Brien) suffers from long-term mental illness, manifesting as paranoid delusions and aggressive lashings out at her family. Dad (Paul Stonehouse) is more carer than husband, a man who's been visibly eroded by the stress of caring for her - finding refuge in dodgy carpentry and endless cups of tea. 

Our starting point is the return of their son Johnny (Richard Southgate). He's just completed the first year of a history degree, and is obviously rather nonplussed at having to trek all the way to the middle of nowhere to his parent's new house. Spiky and snobby, he stands aloof, preferring to retreat to his bedroom and play an online military conquest game.

Yet soon he finds his deepest worst fears realised - his mother's mental illness is manifesting in him. The first terrifying inklings are his being unable to perceive the family's three boisterous dogs. Later he begins to suffer delusions of grandeur, having tripped out conversations with a Northern Irish accented apparition of Cleopatra (Melanie McHugh). As tempers and sanity fray at the edges, ominous portents mount. In the second scene someone is cleaning an antique shotgun - is everyone going make it out alive?

Maggie O'Brien and Richard Southgate
The malleable reality and emotional tension make for immediately compelling theatre. This is aided by a detail-orientated set with a dog motif, shabby wallpaper and ever-so-slightly off kilter geometry. The Red Lion Theatre isn't the largest performance space, but Libby Todd's set shrinks it even further - squeezing the audience's noses right up against the fourth wall. As we descend into hallucination the cast invade the audience space, squeezing in and out of the old pews, sitting on the audience's laps and perching at the extreme corners of the room.

This makes for an intense atmosphere, aided in no small part by light and sound design that succeeds at both creating a dowdily realistic world of hissing electric kettles and an expressionist inner-world of neon, high contrast electric lighting and striking spots of colour. Most memorable is a sense of the family kitchen as a bubble of reality - when the character's cross the boundary there's a flash of lights and high-pitched squeal, as if the theatrical medium itself is protesting.

It's that playfulness with the medium that most struck me about the tale. Theatre commands its audience to suspend its disbelief more than nearly every other medium. The very act of watching actors perform on stage requires you to overlook the many artificial elements surrounding them. Most of the time this is done entirely unconsciously - we can take mime in our stride - if the actors behave like something is there, for all intents and purposes, it is. 

Dogs of War screws around with the fundamental theatrical notion, the invisible dogs existing in some indefinable half-reality between the perceptions of characters and audience. Johnny straddles the two, making frequent trips into the audience space to observe his family from our removed viewpoint. As I saw it, mental illness here is a symptom of being a character in a play. After all, being observed, judged and laughed at by a silent, invisible crowd would make anyone paranoid.

Richard Southgate and Melanie McHugh
This is sophisticated metatextual gristle, but there's a nagging suspicion that Dogs of War is exploiting mental illness to make that point. To give it due credit, there's a decent wodge of stuff in the programme explaining precisely how the play addresses real life concerns, that the play supports the Rethink Mental Illness campaign and urges us to rethink stigma and bolster our compassion.

That's all gravy, but ultimately, having a mentally ill character hallucinate a comedy take on Cleopatra and gradually lapse into a Julius Caesar delusion is uncomfortably close to the knackered mental illness stereotypes of believing you're Napoleon. Fortunately, succour can at least be taken in the sensitive and empathetic writing that emphasises the pain of loss of self-control, strained social relationships and the assault on dignity that mental illness can cause.

So a tricky one. Dogs of War is a wonderfully performed play - Maggie O'Brien gave me literal goosebumps at some points - and excellently turned out in all respects. But I'm still not quite sure precisely what it's getting at. My cynical side says that it's sensationalising mental illness to entertain, but my optimistic side looks to the mile-wide streak of kindness that runs through every inch of the material. Perhaps it's that tension that makes it such an idiosyncratic experience. I can recommend it purely on that basis - at the very least it provokes debate.


Dogs of War is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 20th June. Tickets here.

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