A1 Play: 'The Director, The Doctor and the Dead, Dead Dog'
When I arrive at the Hurtwood theatre, despite the unseasonable cold outside, I’m warmed to see ex-Hurtwood Psychology and Theatre teacher, James Hartman. It makes sense that he would be here. I’ve come to watch the A1 play, overseen by our Director in Residence, Andy Johnson. Over the years, James and Andy collaborated on numerous productions, including many when James was a young whipper snapper of a student here. We’ve heard tales of students reduced to tears during their production of Frank McGuinness’ World War I drama, ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’. Their final production together was last year’s excellent dramatization of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ (see our review here).
I’d already read the script for this play – and written some blurb for the programme – but still didn’t really know what to expect. I knew there would be some unusual things about language, misquotations, birth, death, and a dog. But beyond that, I couldn’t visualise it. The play is called, ‘The Director, The Doctor and the Dead, Dead Dog’, and it begins – where does it begin? – with an apparent introduction from the director (Andy, playing himself excellently):
Just a quick note before we start…
And so begins a series of puns, self-referential inward turnings, and a near-constant peeling back of the layers of audience expectation and theatrical conventions, which, we’re reliably informed from the start, ‘all happens exactly as it really happen[s]’. I think it’s about the theatrical process – there is a hilarious drama games sequence in which the director – no longer Andy himself, but someone playing director, asks for ‘ambience’ and we are plunged into a world of naff psychedelia and panpipe moods. The game they play appears to involve standing in a circle and saying the word, ‘buttocks’. Highly implausible, I thought, until Mr Hartman leaned in and whispered, ‘That’s my theatre game. I used to play that with my students’. EXACTLY as it really happens. Weird.
It’s also about politics, with a self-consciously corny bit of agitprop (‘What does the blue pill do?’ ‘De-fund the NHS’). And it’s about existential absurdism (‘You have a severe case of the human condition’). And it’s also about life itself, with a genuinely moving monologue at the end delivered by a new-born dog, in which the whole caper comes full circle (‘You are back where you belong’). It’s a testament to the power of the writing and the performances – the dialogue is funny, really funny – that we’ve heard this monologue once already, and it still punches hard.
Though this production has many of the hallmarks of Andy’s wit, flair and joyful experimentation, it is in fact written by another ex-Hurtwood student, Olive Bown. I spoke to Olive about her script back in January. She said that the play was an attempt to explore parody, ‘a parody of itself… of tick-box school theatre… An absurdist curation of references’. And references abound! You'll be taken back to your literary studies, for better or worse, with links to innumerable greats: Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemmingway, Beckett, Joyce and, of course, Keanu Reeves. Jokes aside, it’s a very impressive piece of work and, no doubt, not the last we will hear from Olive.
So, in keeping with the whole gleeful mess, I’ll finish with another quotation. In Chaucer’s notoriously bawdy ‘The Wife of Bath’ (shout out A2s. Pain is real), the Wife says her, ‘intent is but to play’. And so it is here – a ‘play’ in all senses of the word: performance, affectation, experimentation, manipulation, and the brash, swaggering joyfulness of playas. We got played, and what fun it was! Play on!