Coming from the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, but set in the KwaZulu Natal nearer Durban, Craig Higginson’s 80-minute play is one of the best post-apartheid new dramas we’ve seen in London.
It has the considerable bonus of Janet Suzman giving a highly-charged and deeply-layered performance as a farmer’s wife, Patricia Wiley, packing up before retiring to the coast while her husband, Richard, declines into senility, and the property is taken over by a development agency.
The play hinges not only on upheavals in the country but also on the various crises of this particular day: Bernard Kay’s full-chested, violent Richard is cracking up, talking of dead children; and the Wileys’ former cabin boy, or farmhand, “Look Smart” (real name P Y Nkosi, and played with real focus and ferocity by Ariyon Bakare), turns up in a suit.
He’s from the agency, having left the farm fifteen years ago. He is also smoldering with grievances, and it’s a mark of Higginson’s dramatic talent that the deep cultural stand-off partly stems from a misunderstood triviality: when a black girl was fatally savaged by a dog on the farm, a blanket was placed on the hospital-bound car seat -- not to preserve the white leather (as Look Smart thought), but to staunch the flow of blood.
Much of the play is about remembering “what happened,” and the incident with the dog is reanimated to reveal even more terrible a history. The dead girl’s sister, Beauty (Gracy Goldman), the Wileys’ housemaid, unlocks the truth about Richard’s relationship with the victim and other farmhands.
Patricia lost a child of her own, and compensated, perhaps, by running the farm, breeding Welsh ponies and helping Look Smart through boarding school. Suzman gives a highly sympathetic edge to someone who did her best for others while coping with acute personal problems, not the usual portrait of the land-owning white farmers.
God is always in the detail in a good play like this, and the situation is both riveting in itself and highly informative. Katie McAleese, who has earned spurs as an assistant on La Cage aux Folles and Rookery Nook at the Menier, directs the play beautifully, and the set and lighting designs are neatly done by Alex Marker and Michael Nabarro.
- Michael Coveney
The following THREE STAR review is from our Off-West End contributor Giles Cole
The barking of a dog announces the arrival of an unexpected visitor. A man in a suit appears in the house of white farm-owners Patricia and Richard Wiley on the eve of their departure (they've sold up to retire to Durban). The man is their former garden boy, and has done well for himself, but he is not there to thank Patricia for the education she provided for him, or to bid them a fond farewell.
This is KwaZulu-Natal in millennium year, and white people are casually being slaughtered. We therefore fear for Patricia and her irascible Yorkshire-born husband, especially when their visitor menacingly picks up a knife from the fruit bowl, and coolly dissects an apple.
Are we in for a blood-soaked revenge drama? The suit suggests not, and so it proves. ‘Look-Smart’, as the suit-wearer is aptly known, has a more complicated agenda, involving the death 15 years previously of his fiancée, Grace, whose sister Beauty remains in service in the house.
This is a drama of gradual revelation, teeming with exposition, and heavy with symbolism. The plot contains few genuine surprises, and the main action consists of the awakening realisation of past atrocities and the role reversal between servants and masters.
All this is handled with dexterity by writer Craig Higginson, Literary Manager of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, where the play was performed in 2007. For the first 45 of an interval-free 90 minutes, the play exerts a snake-like grip as we discover the real purpose of Look-Smart’s return. Once the potential threat is dismantled, however, the tension sags and the play becomes an exercise in fondly and not-so-fondly remembered events, leading to an underwhelming conclusion.
The chief pleasure of the evening is the majestic presence of Janet Suzman, who invests Patricia with glowing humanity and makes each line ring with personal truth. She is a woman for whom life has long been a disappointment, despite her advantages, and we catch every nuance of her bleak hope for the future.
As the servant-turned-businessman still haunted by his past, Ariyon Bakare has just the right combination of pride and indignation, while Gracy Goldman perfectly embodies Beauty’s long-suffering, quiet dignity. Bernard Kay shows us exactly the kind of marriage that Patricia has endured, but his performance is sometimes a little over-projected for such an intimate space.
As a snapshot of post-apartheid South Africa, Dream of the Dog has considerable power, but it falls short of real theatrical excitement.
- Giles Cole