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Theatre Review: Blush of Dogs (Tabard Theatre, London)

blush of dogs Greasy characters. Anna Procter (left) , Mike Corsale (centre), and Ben Alderton (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.
blush of dogs

Greasy characters. Anna Procter (left) , Mike Corsale (centre), and Ben Alderton (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

In A Nutshell

Bold, original, and excessive, Blush of Dogs is an unhinged adaptation, bringing Greek tragedy to gory and twisted life.

Overview

After the end of a bloody civil war between a king and his brother, a nation rebuilds itself from the ashes. But King Atreus is desperate for redemption and resolution from his brother despite the harm his kin has caused. Upon his return, Thyestes looks to stir things up, with affections of the queen and fate of his heirs at stake. But what can blind personal sayer and prophet to the king, Tiresias, do to avert the impending disaster?

blush of dogs

Light showers of blood. Ben Alderton (left) and Mike Corsale (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Writing

Roland Reynolds pens a modern adaptation of this Greek myth, promising that Blush of Dogs will take a contemporary and current slant: a well worn writing trope. But dispel any worries of a dreary modern adaptation as what we get is a almost a whole new play that breathes a violent and frantic new life into an often stale genre.

One thing in particular is that Reynolds’ text feels more Greek than anything else, but without feeling antiquated. There are passages in Blush of Dogs of high prose – blank verse and poetic language – but it also flows unnoticeable into more modern terms and metre, drifting back and forth between the two language structures and styles. Because of Blush of Dogs is recognisably rooted in epic classical tragedy, but isn’t bogged down with too high-art and obtuse verse.

The great things about Reynold’s resetting is that it doesn’t make a big deal about its epoch shift. The strew of orange peels and juice cartoons, references to helicopters, and other such contemporary references are there as part of Blush of Dogs’ narrative course, rather than serving as a shoe-horned reminder of when this is being set. Everything feels organic, and could absolutely pass for a modern story as opposed to Reynolds borrowing from mythology. Reynolds makes sure the focus always remains on his characters and the themes explored rather than making a big deal about its modernity.

Blush of Dogs is also stepped with difficult and complex questions and abstracts. The most obvious is exploring physical and emotional “blindness”, from the sight-impaired sayer to the blinkered ambition and pride of the King. Reynolds really takes his time to fully and intelligently explore the complicated emotions, motives, and fabled of the characters. It’s thickly interwoven with more issues than you could shake a psychotherapist at, and each is never glossed over for convenience. And herein lies possibly the only negative in Reynolds’ play. Whilst it doesn’t drag, it certainly moves at a slow pace at points which some might find a little laboured. It’s verbose, but its also verdant and engrossing.

The masterstroke of Blush of Dogs is its twisted sense of humour, especially when it comes to juxtaposition and irony. Reynold’s chorus, in particular, add a strange and humorous variance as the proles of the piece. But their jests are never superlative, and are always meaningful and relevant, even if a little absurd. It’s a little discombobulating but it breaks up the pace and the severity of the rest of the piece, giving a little, albeit unsavoury, reprieve. Even the main character themselves find time for surreal and dry wit, making Blush of Dogs fizz with sinister cheek.

blush of dogs

Be our guest. Ben Alderton (left), Anna Procter (centre), and Mike Corsale (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Direction & Production

Reynolds’ direction for Blush of Dogs is just as crazy as the writing. In the tiny space of the Tabard Theatre, Reynolds still manages to fill it with a excessive amount of insanity and gore without it ever feeling cramped. Whilst Reynolds manages to keep a flurry of activity going and uses the space well, the most brilliant aspects of his direction is the genius moments he puts in. One particular bit was on one side of the stage the queen pours her heart into a Dictaphone, whilst on the opposite side the king and his brother have stripped down to their underwear, oiled each-other up, and started wrestling on the floor. You have no idea whether to laugh at the deliberate homoerotic japery or be chilled by the queen’s monologue. It’s an unbound technique that keeps your attention whilst getting the play’s themes and abstracts across. This bizarre cocktail of approaches is actually surprisingly provocative even if a bit disorientating.

There are also some other brilliant aspects of the production. Isabella Van Braeckel’s costumes are of a brilliant quality. These aren’t just dirty ragged clothes as they’re literally caked with bits of detailing: some manner of dirty glittery gloop. The same can be said of the incredibly high quality masks that the cast don on and off, making this is a production that really understands the importance of aesthetic quality. Van Braeckel’s set for Blush of Dogs is also reminiscent of retro camp kitsch, a la Pink Narcissus, with an equally as dirty and shimmery a backdrop and broken classical columns. It all reeks of a strange limbo of past and presence, that brims with mischief and irony: perfect for what Reynolds seeks to explore through his text.

One of the most impressive aspects of the production is also how no expense has been spared with the gore. Gore is something difficult to get right in any theatre in order for it to not look silly, let alone in as compact space as the Tabard Theatre. Yet, Blush of Dogs pipes in plenty of fake blood and vomit throwing caution to the wind, and then some. The piece de resistance (so to speak) was Blush of Dogs’ climax: a most macabre feast. Buckets and trays of cooked meats are brought out, along with three large severed dolls’ heads. The heads were possibly the most unconvincing pieces of props, but with the fake blood and everything else around it they hardly distracted. Here, Reynolds also recognises the power of smell, especially in such a small space. The smell of the food is oppressive and overpowering, making you feel ill enough as it is without knowing what the platters represent.

The only thing that could possible be picked at in Blush of Dogs is the decision to have the cast triple their roles. It’s not a major drawback, but it does just feel a little too disjointed, particularly with Tiresias, the blind prophet. Whilst its incredibly interesting to see what each actor brings to this central character, the role could probably benefit from having another actor involved to give Tiresias a bit more grounding rather than the transient and fractured character he becomes here.

Blush of Dogs

Sweet embrace of death. Anna Procter (rear) and Mike Corsale (front). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

The cast behind Blush of Dogs work incredibly well as a unit. As they play so many characters between them, it’s difficult to really comment on them as individuals. What’s most striking is the energy and stamina that they have across them all. At every moment they squeeze out an unholy tempo, even in less manic moments. Nothing about their performances drag, and they provide Blush of Dogs with rocket fuel.

The variety each of them bring is also just as astonishing. They become completely different people each time they become a different person, only to slip back to their main character with an ease that feels like mere water off a duck’s back. As a troupe, they revel in the excess and twistedness of Reynold’s version of this Greek myth, basking in slick sick and gory glory. It’s a cast and a company that gorge themselves on Reynolds’ vision, with exhilarating results.

Verdict

Greek tragedy has never been less dead. Barbaric, barmy, and literally bloody brilliance.

Blush of Dogs plays at the Tabard Theatre, London, W4 1LW, until 25 April 2015. Tickets are £17 (concessions available). To book, visit www.tabardweb.co.uk.

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