By : Niki Igbaroola
It takes a great deal of skill to stand on stage, solely using your voice and body to tell a story for the better part of two and a half hours. When done as sublimely as Kwaku Mills does in the Tiata Fahodzi directed staging of Arinze Kene’s Good Dog, the performance can only be deemed mastery. With just his body, Mills expertly commands the stage, switching from his central 13-year old character to emulate a number of the other characters that make up the story. His power is however in the way he handles the physical comedy necessary for the telling of this story. To hear the audience laugh, responding to the cues of Mill’s talent, was a beautiful reminder of the joy of theatre.
Good Dog is a play about a young boy whose faulty understanding of goodness leads to a physical and emotional breakdown as he comes to grip with reality, The idea that to be good will lead to reward is a belief that is dismantled as he looks in on his life and those of fellow neighbourhood residents. As audience member, I was aware of the dangers of his mindset, aware that being and doing good with the expectation of rewards is unhealthy, but I am not 13 and life has taught me the lesson ‘Boy’ learns over the course of this narrative.
Where I take issue with the conclusion of this narrative is the jaded ‘Boy’ that is left standing on stage, so far from the one that we meet at the play’s start. Good Dog seems to portray coming to terms with the realities of life and learning that goodness does not come with reward as soul crushing. I cannot help but question this perspective on morality. Perhaps I am too steeped in the Christian belief of heavenly rewards and am therefore unable to understand ‘Boy’s’ decline into anger but I believe it is more likely that I am a realist who thinks disappointment should never be met with anger.
Emotionally, this play was heavily negative. The moments of laughter, dominantly at the naivete of ‘Boy’ seemed not extend beyond the first half of Act One. Throughout this play, the audience was subject to disappointment, anger, regret, jealousy, exasperation, fear, tortured longing, sexual assault, self-hate, a miscarriage, death, wrongful arrest and conviction just to name a few. It was exhausting. By the second half of the play, the emotional fatigue of watching this play left me longing for fresh air and a clear head.
The plot was very linear in its perspective on things, a trait I found to be highly unrealistic given that life is complicated and opposing at every turn. To choose to tell a story so rooted in a real South London neighbourhood from a singular perspective was to misrepresent reality. Good Dog’s take on life seemed to be that is was a dismal, disappointing affair. None of the characters seemed to find joy in life at any turns through the play,
I kept waiting for perspective, for balanced, more nuanced opinions to be a part of the narrative, perhaps I expected too much from a 13-year old protagonist whose morality was being shaped by a very stringent set up circumstances and the writer was being true to that reality. However, I have to question the purpose of a story that tells one story so rigidly it leaves its audience overwhelmed and choked.
I have respect for what Kene and the team attempted to do with Good Dog – the choices made in telling the story and even the narrative focus but I cannot say that I enjoyed the execution. I enjoy when me theatre leaves me questioning, thinking and contemplating rather than relieved to see the end of a production.