One of two plays by Rosalind Blessed, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People [Delights] is currently performing at the Old Red Lion Theatre. It is a most unique performance, one with a peculiar charm and one which, alongside Lullabies for the Lost [Lullabies], Blessed’s other play, conveys her very particular and identifiable style as a writer. There remain, however, many areas in this performance to be perfected.
I shall start with the structure and content of the writing. For the vast majority of the text, speech remains monologic, with any substantial and lengthy interactions between the two characters being interrupted by asides and mini monologues. In this way, there is little conversation or fluid interaction between the two characters, and so our reading of their relationship, as opposed to their individual personalities and idiosyncrasies, remains rather restricted. On top of this, what we are presented of the characters directly and what the character say of each other during said monologues provide us with very different information. Then, the narrative we are presented remains non-linear, which adds that last further complication when trying to work out James (Duncan Wilkins) and Robin’s (Rosalind Blessed) relationship and how exactly it deteriorated in the way it did.
It is clear from the very beginning that James is abusive towards Robin, through both of their monologues, yet this is not evidenced at all in these interactions. A prime example of this is the camping scene where the two seem utterly enamoured with one another. In this scene there is not even the slightest hint of tension, so what happened? At Robin’s dog’s funeral, after their breakup, the two are definitely tense but not in a particularly overt or extreme way. Robin certainly does not act as though she has been victimised; rather, she acts just as uneasy or uncomfortable as expected in the rather banal situation. It feels as though the running thread which draws all of these moments together is missing, and this causes too huge a contrast between the rather normal uneasiness in this scene, for example, and the extreme abuse we see James deal out in the final scenes.
It is incredibly difficult to chart this relationship, and, if it was not for the names of the characters, it would be easy to slip into regarding these portrayals as those of multiple relationships with different persons involved. The problem is that there is no progression demonstrated in neither Robin’s side of the story nor the moments that portray their relationship directly. There is, however, a much sharper degree of progression in James’s thinking.
Whilst we are still unaware of James’s reasoning and motivations, which, again, definitely takes its toll on our reading of the relationship, we are presented with how James relates to the breakup. With James giving us several red flags about the way he views Robin, as silly, dorky or clumsy, his monologues allow for an allusion to the extreme abuse we will see in the final scenes, but it still is not enough. It is clear that Blessed desired to create an endearing and comedic character in James that would soon be revealed as dark and venomous. This is most successful. By having Wilkins interact with audience members as James, this endearment is forced upon us. We have to enjoy this character, whether we like it or not, and this is very effective, particularly in the club scene wherein James is asking for our empathy and understanding, demonstrating his emotional state and confusion over the situation, and remaining entertaining in subtly flirting with or befriending audience members through direct address. This is a very clever way of inducing us to respect, admire or favour a character, and this leads to an intensification of shock when this adoration is subverted.
Robin’s character, on the other hand, remains rather undistinguished. This has not only to do with writing but with characterisation. Whilst Blessed’s portrayal of strong negative emotion is both intense and convincing, Blessed’s transformativity is incredibly lacking, and, as a result of this, Robin’s character profile remains too simple and shallow. In fact, I must say that there is a dissatisfying number of times where it is even debatable as to whether Blessed is still acting or not. She seems to become vague at points, still and indistinct. This is mostly specific to moments wherein Wilkins is delivering his lines. Blessed seems to forget that she is still visible and constantly needs to demonstrate presence and character. In this way, the feelings that we definitely experience during this performance come merely through the raw and uninhibited content of the text itself where Robin is concerned, not through character.
The writing deals with some unspoken yet prevalent issues affecting minds today, surrounding sex and consent, self-worth and self-deprecation and agency and autonomy within relationships –– these and many more. The material this text deals with is thus very hard-hitting and relevant. However, there are many times in this play where action, or inaction, for that matter, takes away from the profundity and heaviness of this. There is a lot of stasis and routine in this play: lights change to blue, and the actors step forward to monologue; actors stay still for the most part of a scene and let the text do the work; in the club scene, Wilkins expresses his distress/confusion, then dances, then expresses, then dances, etc.; and so on. This routined action paired with very little use of space and movement makes for a very still and unforgiving piece of theatre. In fact, vitality and essence are so lacking in places that it feels sometimes as though character is simply being used as a tool for soliloquies of the writer’s heart, that the text is the main focal point as opposed to what is represented visually and in action. But this is the role of an audiobook, not a piece of theatre. Contrary to this, there are moments where this is far too much happening visually which subtracts from the text –– a good example of this being the scene between Robin and her Dog played by Wilkins (more on this later). It is thus crucial that this text find a balance between action and speech. This balance must also be found within speech itself, however, with the text constantly juggling reflective, poignant and strong themes with flippancy, vitality and comicalness of character.
The main thing I want from this text, beyond what I have already written above, is more of a perspective on James’s psychology. Constant utterance of his confusion over his breakup as well as his desire to get Robin back is really the ultimate extent of what we learn about his character. This becomes quite repetitious and hence unprofound. Having such a persistent focus on James’s character and feelings, this text could be a really great site for exploration into the minds of the abuser, as opposed to the victim. It could explore the difficulties faced in suchlike situations where abuse is unintentional or unrecognised for the abuser, and where abuse seems secondhand and distanced to them, making it difficult for the victim to really gauge the extent of the situation and the severity of their abuse, which usually results in far worse a suffering from both sides later down the line. Beginning and ending with James, perhaps this is, indeed, the intention of this text –– in which case, it is falling short of its aims –– or perhaps this is just for style, presenting the material from the antagonist’s perspective, but I feel this latter is too uninspired a direction for this text.
As written above, juggling content and form, i.e. themes/significance and character/drama, is something this play struggles with consistently, and these final scenes, when Robin arrives to collect her dogs, demonstrate more than any other a lack of refinement and organisation of material. This is only the second uninterrupted scene between James and Robin, the first being the camping scene which, again, imagines an entirely different relationship, and the shift between these is severe. Robin, unlike us, seems prepared for this, conditioned to James’s outbursts, irrationality and erraticism, entering, as soon as James starts, a trained and almost catatonic state of defence –– although, from an acting standpoint, this could be minimised, as, again, it sometimes feels as though Blessed is not really in the moment, which is definitely not desired here. However, despite Robin’s readiness, we are not accustomed to these outbursts; again, there has been no buildup to them; they seem to come out of nowhere. It is an issue with context; a lot more is needed to make this scene congruous with the rest of the text.
This being said, the text here is focused, poignant and articulate. One certainly feels as though one is witnessing a real and harrowing display of abuse. We see the true colours of James, so to speak, and this is most certainly chilling and effective. The acting here, from both Blessed and Wilkins, is remarkable. The two remain incredibly and incontestably gripping. As a stand-alone scene, it is both excellent and successful. Yet, it still remains utterly disjointed when placed within this text, both in terms of tone and content.
What really dampens and destroys the poignancy of this scene for me, however, is Robin’s death. This is far too dramatic and completely incongruous with the rest of the otherwise static and underplayed material of this performance. A most unimaginative and vapid ending, especially given that our trust of James has been shattered and so we cannot really trust that his description of what happened to her is true. Her death is far too abrupt, abstruse and overdramatic. It really feels as though the play just gave up on itself with this ending, selling itself for cheap and common thrill.
Aesthetically, this is a rather unimpressive performance. Delights uses the bare minimum design possible to imply location, and whilst this complements the sometimes short and fast-paced scenes, it makes for a dissatisfying visual overall. This is, admittedly, counteracted by the constant use of props, but these approach superfluity and become over-relied upon to generate a sense of location. This over-reliance makes for frictions when props are omitted where they really should not be; for example, in the final scenes, where is the food that James has prepared Robin? It is bizarre to me to have props and food/drink in the beginning of the play and yet nothing upon the plates in these final scenes. I was disappointed to find that the set design echoed that of Lullabies. It feels lazy. The white boxes with harsh black outlines make both setting and the overall world of the play enigmatic and hard to read. Costume, on the other hand, is rather good until the end when Blessed wears a bathrobe throughout. Whilst one could argue that this sharpens our sense of her vulnerability, to me, it just seems as though little effort has gone into realism here, especially given that she is barefoot, too. It seems unnatural that she would travel all the way to James’s house dressed in such a way, no?
As with Lullabies, the motif of dogs makes an appearance, but, this time, it is far more substantial and prolific, used across the narrative, and this is promising, fundamentally. Yet, I find the manner in which the dogs are communicated to be far too convoluted. We first have the funeral, the setting of which is conveyed by a mat topped with artificial grass and a small, collared white statuette of a dog. The representation here draws more from our visual imagination. The dog is symbolised by these pieces as dead and we must make our own mental image of what the dog would have been. Next, we have Wilkins wear this collar and perform as a dog, a most surreal and overdramatic representation, painstakingly working our suspension of disbelief. Finally, the sound effect of a group of dogs barking draws from the auditory imagination of audience members. These all require us to work different parts of our minds, of our imaginations, and the physicality, reality and significance of the dogs in this way become skewed. Choose a style of representation and stick with it.
Yes, I find Wilkins’s dog portrayal amusing and endearing, but it is highly subtractive. It is a deliberate attempt to enthral the audience, especially with Wilkins interacting with that aforementioned audience member that he had been attempting to woo earlier on. This is really the heart of Robin’s side of the story, and the focus upon her words and thoughts should be far more ultimate and poignant. This extravagant and surreal display distracts entirely from the severity of this scene. Perhaps Blessed’s intention was to demonstrate the pacifying and mollifying power of her dogs, those which helped her through her own personal sufferings in real life; perhaps the intention is to have the dog distract us from the pain in the work in the same way they distracted her. If this is the case, the intention is good, but we are not actually presented with enough information on the dogs and Robin’s restorative relation to them whilst experiencing pain and trauma for this to be as effective and as well communicated in play. The motif of dogs is still but budding so early on in this play, and our lack of understanding of their significance forces us to concentrate even more on Wilkins as a dog as opposed to Robin’s monologue, eradicating poignancy through a knowing silliness. This outlandish treatment of hard-hitting topics also trains audience members to brush over such items later on, to the detriment of the performance.
Overall, there is a lot to be worked on in this performance. Scenes alone are good and, for the most part, demonstrate profound and organised thinking, but there remains an extreme stylistic incongruity across these. To consider each scene as a separate entity is to have enjoyed this performance; considering them all as interconnected, however, is something else. Both the aim and the voice of the text feel confused, disorderly and ill-conceived.