Culture

Review: A Dog Called Monkey

27 June 2017

CONTENT WARNING: TRAUMA AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

Ironically, some of the best works of art make you uncomfortable. They leave a funny taste behind in your mouth and tug at your soul. I felt A Dog Called Monkey right down to my fingertips.

It’s somehow both familiar and foreign all at once, like a memory that’s blurry at the edges and could have actually been a dream. Playing with the boundaries of reality and insanity, director Freya McGrath and writer Laura Collins combine commonplace settings and recognisable characters with a twisted narrative arc that leaves the audience aching for some kind of catharsis. We are instead faced with the fickle nature of the truth and ultimately left questioning what it even is.

The narrative follows Leah, a young woman dealing with the aftermath of her sexual assault, and her friends, as they naively attempt to navigate their changing relationships with her. It is a fresh, realistic and biting subversion of the classic ‘coming of age’ tale: an honest account of how ‘growing up’ can arrive unwanted on the heels of trauma. Venus Notarberardino stars as Leah, giving a heartbreaking performance as her character crosses the line from coping to breakdown. Her friends are deeply relatable staples of most young adult’s friendship circles, with a bitter edge: Georgie Pender’s comic timing as the unaffected Emily makes the mood contrast between the first and second act all the more confronting, while Ashyr Mason-Kaine, brilliantly unhinged as Kayla, takes the role of ‘cool girl’ to delusional heights. Declan Mulcahy plays Hamish, embodying the ‘nice guy’ trope to perfection. Then there’s Amos Wilkson as Dom, dazzlingly blasé and bland, as one half of a loved up couple – making later revelations all the more sinister. Finally, Eden Gonford is Pete, a charming performance art wanker, who reminds you of that dear friend you’ve always kind of wanted to punch in the face.

Under a cluster of fairy-lights, tableaux-esque scenes staged like renaissance paintings play out in hauntingly mundane settings: a bar, a bedroom, a share-house. Visual media is incorporated into the set flawlessly and subtly, emphasising the actors’ performance, rather than overpowering it. What’s more the set changes overall are versatile and minimalistic, working to both differentiate the events in the first act, and enhance the dream-like quality of the second.

The music holds everything together, moving the audience from moment to moment in smooth transitions from heady dance beats to climatic classical trances. A constant rhythm pulses through the body of the audience, a hypnotic background to the palpable emotions of the characters. It’s eery, confusing, and mimics the haze-like feeling of being stuck in Revs for too long.

The first act lulls the audience into a false sense of security, as it is firmly grounded in the realness of dealing with traumatic events and focuses on the external rather than internal reactions. That is not to say it is not uncomfortable: Leah draws the audience in with her quirky mix of vulnerability and strength, eliciting rage and anxiety on her behalf as her friends fumble around her feelings. Kayla and Emily in particular are stunning as they are swept up in Pete’s philosophical tangent, going from poised to animalistic seamlessly, against a flickering backdrop of projected images; they are awkward as they leave to comfort the constant but invisible figure of Leah’s abuser; they are harmful as they deny her truth and try to turn back the clock. With the pressure this builds, the spell of normality is broken towards the close of the act. The lights suddenly burn red, the music intensifies, the atmosphere escalates, and Leah’s composure finally breaks, scattering into pieces across the stage.

In the second act, we descend alongside Leah into a world that’s not quite solid. Repetition is used to convey the fragility of memory and sanity.  A bed sits centre stage, weighting down the beautifully chaotic choreography which brings Laura Collins’ words to life.The audience is left guessing what is ‘real’, and what is happening in her sleep: both worlds smear together in a kaleidoscope of frantic motion and fractured stillness. Motifs of coconut ice and a misnomered, escapee dog are woven through both halves in a disorienting game of Chinese whispers, a constant reminder of the susceptibility of reality to manipulation. Its confusing blend of dreamscape, alcohol, and raw hurt make it impossible to look away.

One scene in particular leaves me short of breath, with red, half crescent marks on my palms from my nails digging in. It’s such a simple scene: Leah calling her mother on her phone as she sits in bed. She can’t find the words to articulate why, what, or how she feels and perhaps she does not want to, because that would make it real. After all, words are the tools with which we make our truths and our memories. And there is something so horribly familiar about Leah, as she chokes out a smile and excuses for her mother. There is incredible symbolism in the physicality of the props: in the use of the tangled fairy lights to represent the twisted truths and matted memories which Leah desperately tries to avoid unravelling,  in the wine that is poured over her head in a final act of ambiguous denial and justification, in the white bed sheets she wrestles with, a tangible manifestation of her demons.

The whole play is like looking in a Funhouse mirror – when I interviewed Laura before the show opened, she said she wanted to provoke a discussion about what sexual assault really looks like. Not only did she achieve this, but she also managed to create a very real image of what it is like to suffer from PTSD, or mental illness. I have been the girl in that bed, strangled by those sheets, those memories, those dreams. I think a lot of people have, and that is what makes the show both so shocking, so relatable, and so powerful. Yet, it’s more poetic and meaningful than many truths most people manage to extract from the messes of depression and darkness. Laura’s incredible writing has managed to translate something ugly into something beautiful – trauma into art.

When I leave the theatre, everyone is wandering around with wide eyes and shellshocked expressions, and I know I’m no different. Watching A Dog Called Monkey was like watching the worst parts of my youth played out on stage for my sadistic entertainment. Through the narrative of sexual assault, survivorship and ownership, Laura and Freya have somehow managed to create a story that is universally meaningful and hard hitting. Maybe it is because we ourselves have suffered trauma, maybe it is because we have friends who have been sexually assaulted, or maybe it is because we recognise the settings, the characters, the plot in our own lives. The final scene didn’t bring closure or remedy the past, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps growing up means realising that the most important version of truth is our own.