darkly comic, ugly, cynical, anarchic, violent, sexually-charged and in-your-face
POSTCARD FROM PERTH: FRINGE WORLD (inc. MKA DOGMEAT)
On Tuesday night I was back at PICA for the opening of two shows in the Summer Nights season: The Night Guardian by local emerging playwright Jessica Messenger and Dogmeat (pictured above, image by Sarah Walker) by Melbourne company MKA.
MKA are a Melbourne-based company focused on playwriting and playwrights. As I write that sentence I’m struck by the divergent spelling and connotations of those two words. A playwright is someone who makes plays in the sense that a wheelwright or cartwright is someone who makes wheels or carts (from the chunky Old English word wrychta, meaning someone who works or shapes something in wood – although the world is also a pleasing homonym for the modern English ‘writer’). In other words, a play’s a thing that’s manufactured and has a practical function. It’s made well or badly; it works or it doesn’t. ‘Playwriting’ on the other hand suggests a more rarified activity involving a pen or a keyboard to compose something that has an almost immaterial or virtual existence on a page or a screen.
There’s nothing rarified, immaterial or virtual about Dogmeat or the work of MKA.
There are six discernible characters: ‘Dogmeat’, a child who is chained up on the street outside his home in his underwear, feeds from a metal dish and barely speaks; his parents, who have moved from the country to the city for work (dad drives a taxi) and whose other child has been abducted; two local youths called Coyote and Lucky (played by the same actors as the parents) who finger-fuck dead dogs, sniff aerosol cans and hatch get-rich-quick schemes (one of which somehow involves liberating Dogmeat from his chain); and a mysterious well-dressed man who talks to the audience about beating and killing his pet dog (and is possibly a child rapist and killer).
Dogmeat is written (or should I say manufactured?) by MKA’s creative director Tobias Manderson-Galvin and (in this iteration) directed by co-creative director John Kachoyan and performed by a cast of four who go unmentioned in publicity or on the company website. It’s notable that MKA doesn’t promote or fetishize actors in the same way it promotes and unrepentantly fetishizes playwrights, while lighting, costume, set or sound designers also go unmentioned (all are excellent, as are the performances, especially Devon Lang Wilton and Manderson-Galvin himself).
If MKA defiantly foregrounds playwrights rather than auteur-directors, designers or even actors, their plays are a far cry from the more cerebral, talking-head or naturalistic post-WW2 Anglo-Australian tradition from Lawler to Williamson – or the English repertory writing and performance style that gave rise to it and still dominates our main stages. If anything, Dogmeat has more in common with a more baroque, corporeal, even visceral Australian counter-tradition that includes Patrick White, Jack Hibbard and other work at the erstwhile Pram Factory or La Mama in Melbourne, especially in the 70s.
It’s darkly comic, ugly, cynical, anarchic, violent, sexually-charged and in-your-face. The fusion of sex and violence makes it an essentially sadistic world in which all relationships – friendship, family, age, gender, sexuality, culture, work and class – are permeated by power. Plot is fragmented and episodic; language and acting are heightened; characters are brutalized. The social-historical setting is an undefined but liminal zone on the border between urban and rural (or notionally ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’) forms of existence. It could be anywhere, anytime; but implicitly, like all strong theatre, it’s here, now.
Interestingly, like Silo and Night Guardian, the action of Dog Meat takes place in an essentially Gothic landscape: a revival of a revival, so to speak, of medieval tropes for a New Dark Age. Like them, too, it revolves around the recurrent Australian theme of lost, abused or abandoned children.
It’s strong meat, and not for the faint-hearted, or those expecting narrative or meaning to be delivered to them on a plate. For myself, I had the thrilling and quintessentially theatrical experience of being on the edge of my seat, continually not knowing what was going to happen next.