Mini-review – Dream of the Dog – Trafalgar Studios

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Dream of the Dog was recommended to me by a friend when I asked, “Just what good is on right now?” It seemed between London Assurance and All My Sons that pickin’s had been slim on the London stage this spring. I only had a week left to see the show before it closed (and today is its last day); I had to get a move on or miss out. I didn’t even bother with getting cheap tickets (Trafalgar Studios downstairs is never that much anyway) or a date; with a promise of an 80 minute running time, I threw all caution to the wind and bought a full priced ticket for one. Can’t remember the last time I did that!

The play was billed as a confrontation between modern South Africa and old South Africa, in the guise of (old) white farm owners Patricia and Richard Wiley (Janet Suzman and Bernard Kay) versus their former gardener Looksmart (Ariyon Bakare). (There’s also a fourth character, Beauty – Gracy Goldman, I think – the servant of the Wileys, who, like Looksmart, grew up on the farm but never moved away.) It all sounded very “truth commission” and just too damned sincere to be my sort of a show; but it outstripped any preachiness and moved into the kind of digging up the past drama that characterizes the best of Ibsen and Miller (Arthur Miller of course).

The strength came from the deep characterizations Craig Higginson created: rather than being mouthpieces for a straw-man morality tale, all four characters were well-rounded and fascinating, each having a relationship with the other that clearly went beyond the short time we see them together, despite an initial clunkiness with Looksmart (he just seemed to angry and brittle when he showed up and verging on stereotypically violent). Mr. Wiley, who would have been easy to have been a panto villain, was instead painfully human, while maintaining a core of mystery that, to me, seemed appropriate given how even his wife knew so little of him.

But the story itself is also tense and fast moving, with each twist and turn coming as a surprise (to me); I feared it was going to turn into a giant lecture until the character of Patricia was finally allowed to blossom; suddenly forty years of living on an isolated farm came into focus, and even more, going back into her childhood; I felt I understood more of what her situation would have been like than I ever could have imagined, that the compromises and blind spots all came together into a whole, believable human being, who had her own cares and concerns and desires to make her life count for something; and suddenly she too was no longer some Angry White Almost Slaveholder but a real person, with real connections to the people she lived with for so many years. Then Dream of the Dog became, not just a historical artifact, not just a whodunnit, but a rich depiction of real people suffering real pain, something that, I think, will transcend the historical situation it depicts as well as All My Sons is not just about the post-war period in America. Janet Suzman has to get high credit for her work; she was so believable I wanted to reach forward and pat her arm reassuringly. But, in fact, the whole cast was good, and I found this a great tonic to the poor production of Joe Turner I’d seen the week before; here was a mixed race cast doing a show about something that really mattered that was truly absorbing and finely acted, a real change from the weak milk I’d been served up at the Young Vic.

There is a 3 PM matinee today and a 7:45 show tonight that closes the run out: drop what you’re doing and get your tickets now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 17, 2010. It closes tonight.)

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