Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Dogs of War takes the eight Wars of the Roses plays and focuses on the scenes and characters who play minor parts and who are often sacrificed in pared down productions. An ensemble of sixteen portray more than 30 characters whose lives span forty years and six kings. They bring to life the gritty lives of the ordinary man and woman – the soldiers, servants and underdogs.
Dogs of War is an ambitious project to create a work based on eight of Shakespeare’s meatiest plays – those spanning the Wars of the Roses – and present it in an hour and a half. A challenge, even if you are only concentrating on some of the lesser known and oft cut characters and scenes. The result is a tumultuous and energetic show in which we meet some of Shakespeare’s gems – Bardolf, Pistol and Nym among many others. The work is devised, adapted, and directed by Josy Miller and re-orientates Shakespeare’s words alongside new text by Master of Verona author, David Blixt.
Blixt’s new text merges seamlessly with that of Shakespeare and only those who know the plays very well might spot any joins. Miller and Blixt made a choice to present the stories as episodic rather than attempt to create a linear plot line. The strength of this approach is that the text is not forced into shapes that don’t really fit; and Chorus as a character provides links and introductions. At the same time it can also make it difficult to locate the action in the overall scheme of the wars.
The cast are all in modern dress with the addition of a jacket, a corset, a veil for certain characters. This, together with the use of multimedia, contributes to the contemporary feeling of the play as it sets out to investigate the consequences of privileging the voices that we as audiences often do not hear, and offer us the opportunity to think about what these commoners reveal for us now.
The play spans a time period of some 40 years with much conflict between England and France as well as York and Lancaster and some devices to show who belonged where at what point would have helped. For example, I felt that more could be made of the role of Chorus as an advocate for the audience leading us through the scenes set before us and that there was scope to use the multimedia, props and costume to help with the context. It is a deliberately stylised piece and having some characters as commentators at significant points would not lose any of the stories, and might make it easier to relate to. A programme would also add to the audience’s understanding.
The ensemble cast are students from the Institute for the Exploration of Dance, Theatre and Performance (University of California) and that there are sixteen in the cast means that there are understandable variations in the confidence and clarity with which they deliver the text. There was a tendency for some to drop and lose the end of lines; something that could be addressed in future performances.
The focus is that of the common man but there are places where the common is raised to the extraordinary, so we see Joan of Arc’s rise to prominence and subsequent fall. More puzzling was the inclusion of the ghosts cursing Richard in his tent the night before the battle of Bosworth for all of his victims were nobles; however, arguably they could all be taken as the disenfranchised given that they had lost their lives at the whim of the king.
Overall, this original take on the Wars of the Roses plays is well worth seeing for any Shakespeare enthusiast or anyone with an interest in the period. On reflection it is probably best approached without a concern for the historical sequence for the key characters are those whose lives are made most miserable by war and for whom it doesn’t really matter which war, in what century under which ruler…