It's a (critical) Dogfight
So I've been thinking. Thinking a great deal about the critical response to Dogfight, which has polarised newspaper columnists and bloggers alike in a way that no other production I've been involved in has done. Yet, this is the first time I've felt able to read reviews with genuine detachment; for I have never in my career felt so certain I was a part of something really special. A sentiment I can quite confidently state was felt across the board, by all involved in the production. It may sound arrogant to say so... But sometimes, you just know. It's in your heart, your gut and in the atmosphere of sheer joy that pervaded our rehearsal room from day one.
And so, to the critical response (spoilers ahead, for those yet to visit; fair warning!) I'm also assuming those reading hold a degree of familiarity with plot and characters.
For every five star review, every man and woman out there who adored the show, praised it to the heavens as the charming, funny, powerful, heartbreaking piece of theatre we all felt it to be; there was another who would damn the production with faint praise, for reasons frequently related to an inability to get past the misogyny they perceived the piece to be condoning.
I am a woman who proudly identifies herself as a feminist. The Everyday Sexism project, the many, many high profile women (and men) who publicly support feminism; even Beyonce's swiftly iconic turn at the VMA's recently, are all a cause for celebration. There is a very real turning of the tide happening, to my mind, as both sexes reclaim a word long stigmatised and begin to call bullshit when they smell it.
However, to those who have instantly cried misogyny at the premise of the show, who have bemoaned the marines' treatment of the women and claimed their behaviour is swept under the carpet with uncomfortable ease; I can't help but wonder if this is in some part a kneejerk reaction, maybe stemming from a sense of obligation to unequivocally condemn any and all bad male behaviour, without necessarily taking the time to try to contextualise and understand it?
Well, before you cry off with her head, let me attempt to do just that...
We are talking about a group of marines, a mere thirteen weeks into their training, about to be packed off to a country they know next to nothing of, many, many miles from home. A group of boys, some not even out of their teens. A group of scared children, the majority likely fairly uneducated, who have been drilled into turning a blind eye to the humanity of anyone but their military comrades. For how else can you demand of a group of teenage boys that they travel halfway around the world and kill with zero compunction?
They are males of the early sixties. Of Kennedy's era (the majority of the action of Dogfight occurs the day before Kennedy's assassination) the foreshadowing of which casts a desperately sad pall over their belief in their own invincibility. This was a time when equality between the sexes was not even close to being a reality. A time when Americans truly believed they were untouchable. A day later, that belief would implode and the slow erosion of the USA's unshakeable idealism would begin.
I am not condoning the men's treatment of the women of the piece, nor the revoltingly cruel nature of the dogfight itself, but neither am I able to entirely condemn them for it. It can arguably be viewed as one more step on their road to dehumanisation, of themselves and of others. I mean, this stuff actually happened, people. The dogfight was a very real marine tradition. It ain't pretty, but it's true. Shouldn't theatre, any art in fact, shine a light on the bad as well as the good?
To those concerned for the (assumed) terribly fragile feelings of those of us cast as 'ugly', I do think it worth quoting the authors' note in the script - 'the only requirement is that the audience not identify the women chosen as conventionally attractive within the context of 1963 America' (there's that magic word again, context...) Plus; jeez, we're actors. I could write all day about the sheer fun involved in playing someone who is not exactly the girl next door!
What troubles me about the hand wringing response from some quarters to the female characters is that it feels, quite frankly, almost patronising. There seems to be a willful blindness to the fact that for my money, almost all of the female characters are stronger, brighter and often more in control than their male counterparts. A fact that perhaps, just doesn't fit the narrative some seem determined to take from the show.
Rose is, by far, the most intelligent character onstage. When alerted to the true nature of the dogfight, she doesn't opt for a quiet exit, tail between her legs; instead, this shy, bright girl barely out of her teens takes a swing at her date and publicly, furiously and articulately, calls him out for his asshole behaviour. Even the song 'Pretty Funny', perhaps her lowest personal point in the show, steers clear of being entirely self pitying. She grits her teeth, refuses to shed another tear, reminds herself that tomorrow she'll 'forget to even care'. When Eddie returns to make inarticulate amends, she again calls him out on every ignorant statement he utters, every second of bad behaviour, never once letting him off the hook over the course of their evening together, opening his eyes to his own essential decency in the process. Rose is no feeble victim.
To Marcy; a woman of little education but ferocious street smarts. She is in control of her role in the dogfight and of the financial transaction involved every step of the way. Boland can insult her all he wants; she still walks away with a stomach full of free food, booze and a wad of cash. She tears into Rose's naivete in the process, expressing feminist opinions before such opinions were printed on banners and waved on marches up and down the country (albeit in slightly less fruity language, ahem). For my money, future Marcy goes back to school, gets stuck into women's lib, becomes a beloved of the oppressed, Mrs Madrigal type, taking in future Roses, growing pot on the roof. Marcy is a survivor, through and through.
Ruth Two Bears, a woman of few words (but Christ, can she pick them). Does she slink out in embarrassment on learning of the true nature of the evening? No. She calmly pours her drink over her date's head, makes her feelings crystal clear with one choice insult and (God, I hope) heads off with Marcy to continue drinking and shooting the stoical shit way into the night. More the behaviour of one utterly self possessed than one victimised.
Mama; a single mother, taking no nonsense from anyone, kind, caring, having single handedly raised Rose whilst running a business. Helpless female? What do you think?
Suzette, who seems to be having a rather glorious night with the drunken Fector. Even Chippy, who senses which way the wind is blowing and wrests back control of the situation in the whorehouse, realising it's safer and wiser to consent to one more john and be paid for it than risk the choice being taken from her. It's a terrible corner to be backed into, but she has the smarts to find her way out of it as best she can.
These women are victims of their circumstances, absolutely. However, to label them all simply as 'victim', to feel nothing but pity for them, is to deny them their strength. It's demeaning. It's reductive. I think it's inaccurate. In an outraged attempt to defend these 'pitiful' women, you do them the grave disservice of implying they are incapable of defending themselves.
The characters I truly pity in this show are the men. The BOYS. The boys who will never come back from a war they don't understand. The boys who don't know any better. The boys who cling to the mob mentality and to each other because it's the only thing that makes them feel safe, validated, powerful. The only thing that makes them feel like 'men'.
Now, let me make it very clear that I am not calling into question anyone's right to respond to a production however they see fit. It is purely the nature of the negative responses that has interested me and prompted me to scribble down my thoughts on it all, as it has so often come down to 'I dislike the men's behaviour, therefore I dislike the show.' Do you have to like the characters in a work of fiction in order to be able to see any artistic merit in it? Do you like how Richard III behaves? Medea? Do you see my point?
I'm genuinely asking. This blog is not the railing of an actor concerned their work has gone unappreciated and I sincerely hope it doesn't read that way. I am genuinely, deeply fascinated by the passionate responses, both for and against, that Dogfight has elicited. I guess I just wanted to throw my hat in the ring and become a part of the conversation. She loves a good debate...!
I'll finish by saying that for me (and I think I can safely say, for the entire company), working on this show has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I've never worked with a happier, more supportive group of people, or felt more creatively satisfied. I'm amazed and delighted that a production that has brought such happiness to the lives of all involved has hit such a nerve with audiences, for better or worse.
Below is a selection of quotes from reviews; both positive and negative, in the interests of fairness!
Curious as to what all the fuss is about? You have two weeks to find out.
15/9/14 UPDATE - Since writing this blog, a number of further articles have been written in regard to our production; links to which are included below, for those interested!
Dogfight; offensive or outspoken? - Paul Taylor, The Independent
Man bites dog as Dogfight actor hits back at critics - Mark Shenton, The Stage
Theatre Thought: Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse - Katie Brennan, Bloody Hell Brennan
Dogfight – Misogynistic, Or Just A Show About Misogynists? - James Waygood, Grumpy Gay Critic