Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Patron of the arts and all-round pretentious person that I am, I went out to see 'Red Dog' at the theatre last week.

I wouldn't recommend that you do the same.

What was wrong with it? Well, for a start, let me ask you this: how does one best evoke the presence of a mongrel dog, living in the remote towns and campsites in the rough, rugged, uncivilised north-west of Western Australia?

Why, with zany piano accordion music, of course! And shadow puppetry! And mime! Because obviously nothing says "outback mining camps" like piano accordions, shadow puppetry and mime! I'm sure that the population of the Pilbara - truck drivers, stockmen and illiterate labourers - all relax after a long, hard, dusty day with a little Edith Piaf music, some absinthe and a five hour long kabuki play.

Beyond that, I grant them points for trying, but sadly the play was little more than a clever, occasionally powerful series of stagecraft tricks meandering about in search of a plot. It was hard not to get the impression that this thing was born of workshopping, not storytelling. I can imagine a bunch of actors getting together and, after a few bottles of cheap merlot and some hits from the bong, realising that they can charge people $45 a ticket for the honour of witnessing their party tricks. "I'm good with shadow puppets!" one cries. "I can play the piano accordion!" says another. "I can do acrobatic tricks on a stack of folding chairs!" offers a third. "Let's put on a show!"

As a result, twenty minutes into the performance, my chief thought was not "Oh, what a delightful journey into whimsy!" It was "COULD SOMETHING PLEASE HAPPEN!"

But nothing did. This is not to say that the aforementioned stagecraft tricks were not evocative and arresting. Their portrait of Death, malevolent in a long black coat and bony, spider-like appendages, sent goosebumps down my arms every time he appeared. The trick of setting one scene on its side, so that the audience viewed it as if from above, was enormously clever and beautifully executed. But these were great technical and visual achievements that didn't actually do anything.

And in every case, they went on too long. Nothing saps the magic of a stage trick like being forced to stare at it for five minutes while nothing else happens.

Unintentional hilarity came, however, from another source. A few rows away from me sat a large, upper-middle class family, and their youngest daughter reacted badly to Red Dog's melancholy death scene. As Death seduced the dog into the darkness, she burst into tears and stated - loudly, often and in no uncertain terms - that she didn't want Red Dog to die. Her parents tried to calm her, but under the circumstances there wasn't much they could do. The rest of the audience couldn't help but laugh as all the actors' attempts at nuanced emotion were undone by one hysterical little kid.

Congratulations, upper-middle class parents. You just blew $200+ on a night at the theatre that'll give your child nightmares for the rest of the year. If only you'd bought her an iPod instead and just stayed at home watching 'My Name is Earl'.

On the other hand I can't help but feel, in my capacity as someone who hates kids, that if this play gives just one small child psyche-scarring nightmares, it can't be all bad.


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