Dream of the Dog @ Trafalgar Studios, London

cast list
Janet Suzman, Ariyon Bakare, Gracy Goldman, Bernard Kay

directed by
Katie McAleese
Craig Higginsons one-act play – which was first staged last month at the Finborough before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios – considers the relationship between South Africas democratic present and apartheid past.

But it never asserts that all whites were once oppressive monsters any more than it suggests that today everyone in South Africa lives as one big happy family.

On the day before Patricia and Richard Wiley plan to move to Durban for their retirement, having just sold their farm, a black boy whom they brought up suddenly appears again.
Now a self-made man, Look Smart (as he is known) left the farm at the age of eighteen following a deeply traumatic incident, and has now returned to confront the pair over what happened all those years ago.

In this way, the play considers the themes of oppression, responsibility and memory. As Patricia says early on, Look Smart has a future ahead of him, while she and Richard only have a past. Look Smart, however, objects to her assertion that the past simply ‘fades away’, because he argues that past actions have consequences.

Patricia and Look Smart recall this one bleak incident, and his childhood in general, but have very different memories of events. While it feels easy to suppose that Look Smart has the more accurate recollections, and that Patricia views the past through rose-tinted glasses, it soon becomes clear that things are not quite as simple as that.

Look Smart recalls Patricias behaviour on the fateful day in question and views this is as emblematic of her imperialist values. She, nonetheless, has a point when she says that her lapse in judgment was simply momentary, and her confused recollection of events may result from the shock that she felt at the time, rather than a selective memory.

The key interest lies in the fact that neither character is really right or wrong, with the memories of each being coloured by their own position and background. For example, Look Smart sees his own name as one that his parents gave to him to please and humour white people. Patricia, on the other hand, asserts that this is simply his English name in the same way that he has an African one. Similarly, he asserts that whites treat blacks as parents treat children, emphasising the notions of possession and control. It is clear, however, that Patricia did treat Look Smart like a son, but in the sense of loving, and doing her best by, him.

Although four characters appear in the play, for most of its 75-minute running time the focus is firmly on Janet Suzmans Patricia and Ariyon Bakares Look Smart. Suzman, in particular, gives a formidable performance as an English woman trying to go to her retirement as quietly as she can, but permanently weighed down by a loveless marriage and memories of her own lost child. Her expressions every time she is hit by another painful revelation are deeply moving, whilst Bakare similarly convinces as a man who seeks answers, perhaps more than revenge, in order to find inner peace.

The only disappointment comes when Look Smart first encounters Patricia. In contrast to the multi-faceted characters that are subsequently presented, in the opening minutes Look Smart simply seems aggressive, prompting Bakare to shout line after line and Suzman to respond repeatedly with silent cries of anguish. Overall, however, this is a minor quibble, and Dream of the Dog is hugely successful in exploring a range of complex issues that are anything but black and white.

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