Dogs Barking – Pantsguys do Richard Zajdlic and bring in-yer-face to Fringe. (Sydney Fringe Festival)

A sign outside the performance of Dogs Barking in the King Street Theatre reads:

Dogs Barking contains coarse language and cigarette smoke

… as if these are the most confronting elements about this “in-yer-face” theatre production written by Richard Zajdlic.

It turns out to be a poor warning for the uninitiated into “in-yer-face” theatre, a style of drama that emerged from  that great harbinger of misery, Britain in the 1990’s. This is theatre that set out to break down the relationship between the actors and the audience by bringing harder edge confrontational material to the stage intended to shock and horrify the audience. The idea is that the audience becomes more involved.

I think this is accurate.  Theatre is a medium that lends itself, despite the close proximity of the characters, to a separation and a dispassionate viewing. It’s odd, because the people are there in front of you, and yet I usually relate as I would to characters in a book, a film, a song or a painting.  Maybe even more distanced; because the people are there and I am unconsciously working to remove them and view the work as a whole. The passion and intensity and despairing reality of Dogs Barking involves me to the point I feel more like a witness than a member of an audience.  Gone is the familiar safety of the privilege of a viewer.  Instead one gets the uncomfortable feeling one is voyeur, a trespasser, and as I said above, a witness.

Certainly the subject matter is tough, and the four actors do a stellar job with performances more ‘real’ than ‘staged’. Peter Mountfords direction is excellent, allowing for an uncomfortable settling into the crossover point between active viewer and passive observer. The audience sit teetering between the two until finally they are drawn – or rather absorbed – into the unfurling drama.  I don’t know a great deal about “In-yer-face” theatre, but I suspect this is true to the spirit of the work.

Dogs Barking is a tragic tale that unfolds over a weekend as two ex lovers come to terms with the loss of each other, the pain of moving on and (similar to the audiences experience) the complexities of crossing the line into the obscene. Neil (Jamie Irvine) is a clever man with little or no education who is frustrated by his own simplicity and his own inability to affect the world around him. He is a powerless man who resorts to physical violence as so many powerless men do. He is plagued by a remarkable ability to read those around him and not be swayed by them and a complete inability to read himself and resist his own foolishness. HIs powerlessness manifests itself in his attempts to control his environment through force. HIs ex girlfriend Alex (Rebecca Martin) is a genuinely good person, if a little trusting and a little naive around others. She ignores her own intuitive warning signs about her ex boyfriend.  Where Neil follows his gut concerning others and yet can’t do it for himself, Alex could be said to be the opposite that attracted him; excellent at following her gut with herself, but hopeless at following it with those around her.

As these two wage a rather horrific war of inflicting pain spawned from revenge, they have two witnesses. Ray (Jason Perini) and Alex’s sister Vicky (Lara Rosenthal). While Vicky turns out to be one of the frauds Neil has pegged and Alex can’t properly see, Ray is the child like trusting friend, the bulked up male who turns out to be weak and ineffective when his moment to prove himself surfaces. Ray repeatedly laments his broken marriage and the fact that the lions share of his income goes to child support. For me, he has the best line of the play:

“My wife, my kids, and him. You know, I never hit her, I never cheated on her. I just bored her. Why am I paying for that?”

Through the course of the weekend the four characters move around like chess pieces in each others lives, the focal point being the possession of an apartment Neil and Alex bought together. Scenes are broken up with montages that look like childish or pub-drunk games – sequences we gradually understand seriously underplays the viciousness that runs through the relationships of these four people. A whirring soundtrack composed mostly of tracks from Blur’s 13 float and assault the senses as the drama becomes more and more difficult to accept.

This is a fantastically directed, wonderfully acted opportunity to see an iconic 1990’s play. Richard Zajdlic is a fascinating writer. This may not be the most lyrically beautiful theatre you will see, but the characterisation is chilling and disturbingly penetrating. Don’t miss that opportunity to be a little fucked over as an audience. It’s a very exciting experience.

Dogs Barking goes for two hours and is on at The King Street Theatre at these times:

Tue 25 Sep, 7:30 PM
Wed 26 Sep, 7:30 PM
Thu 27 Sep, 7:30 PM
Fri 28 Sep, 7:30 PM
Sat 29 Sep, 7:30 PM
Sun 30 Sep, 5:00 PM