Churchill’s Black Dog

QUT Kelvin Grove (Roundhouse Theatre)


By Clare Dyson

Professional production

It’s something of a challenge to anticipate a performance that tackles the dark topic of depression. We joked uneasily that we might go crawling home in a fragile state. We wondered if there would be an interval and if so, would some of the audience escape. In fact, Clare Dyson’s contemporary dance production injected flashes of wry humour into the stark movement, often wrenching text and visual imagery. This made it accessible and saved it from the indulgence of a pity-party, while still depicting a bleak landscape of dislocation and isolation. The overall experience was cathartic, even possibly uplifting in its comforting resonance of “Oh yes, I’ve felt that” or “I know what they mean.”

This is billed as “a look at depression, darkness and the human psyche – how we all get through the day. Particularly on a bad day, or month or year.” The four dancers each project their expression of facets of mental illness – the self-sabotaging inner talk; the obsessive rituals and time-wasting procrastinations many use to fill their days. Brian Lucas’ character labours over every last obsessive-compulsive detail of writing letters only to crumple them up. He tells “knock-knock” jokes through an empty door-space. Unfortunately, the answers jarred with me disconcertingly as I was still trying to reconcile Churchill of the production’s title with the action and words onstage. Henry Kissinger? But Churchill died decades before Kissinger. Pizza delivery boy – no, surely there was no British take-away in WW2 times, especially not Italian.

For me, the title was unfortunate as I spent half the performance trying to find links and references to Churchill the politician, wondering if the female characters wre supposed to be his mother or his wife. Belatedly we found in the program a statement that the work doesn’t include any references to Churchill, but this wasn’t evident from advance publicity. Yes, it’s a catchy title, echoing Anthony Storr’s book Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafkas’s Mice & Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, but such confusion made it counter-productive. The choice of music appeared to back such a pretext; 40’s swing music like the ironic “I am happy, very very happy” and Bing Crosby evergreens were congruent with Churchill’s era.

In that incongruous patter and chatter that haunts brains of self-sabotaging depressives, Avril Huddy twitches and stutters, while Meeuwissen dresses and undresses: “I put on a pretty dress. This is my happy dress, this is my pretty dress, this is my cheerful dress” , but all are the same brown straight sack-like shape. Otherwise white singlets and sparse petticoats make stark statements in the dark, illuminated in searing light. The publicity notes that there will be nudity but it’s only a few initial moments to assert the vulnerability of those suffering depressed states; an opening freeze frame of a man and woman, standing static. (Remember Sir Robert Helpman’s quip: “The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does.”)

The rich visual symbolism of the set makes a strong impact; into this intimate cocoon-like black theatre in the round, the tiered seating wraps around the stage on which vivid images are highlighted with dramatic shafts of light – the work of choreographer/designer Clare Dyson’s brother Mark Dyson. The lighting on whirling figures is particularly effective. Brittle brown leaves strewn over the stage create a shifting whispering-sands effect of constant sound, as characters fling themselves into them with such cathartic abandon that we’re tempted to join them. Mafe-Keane fitfully sweeps them into listless piles around the tables and chairs. There’s a claw-footed bathtub from which legs and arms writhe – how often do we repair to the warm water womb when feeling miserable? Two floating windowpanes are highlighted in shimmering light.

Particularly amusing was the segment in which one character reads the weather predictions, idly swatting an insect with rolled up newspaper. Lucas’ wallowing under the table in a lather of finger-pointing and self-berating rang all too true: “I’m worried about you/you just lie there/you’ve got to get up and do things, see people/try to make an effort. you’re just pathetic!” There’s the resignation of “I have good days and bad days, ” the turmoil of “losing my wallet, losing my way, losing my mind.” Then the final thrust of “the black dog has come to stay for a while” brings this poignant depiction of complex mental anguish to a close. This challenging work shows sensitive empathy for the depths many people experience and is presented with integrity and insight.

Production and design lighting by Mark Dyson

Playing Thurs 27 – Saturday, July 29, 2006

Duration: 60 minutes (no interval)

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Thu 27th July 2006)