German playwright, Marius von Mayenburg is no stranger to the UK stage, with plays such as The Ugly One and Fireface going down a storm with critics and audiences alike in the past few years. The playwright now returns to the London stage with the UK premier of The Dog, The Night and the Knife, opening at the Arcola Theatre in September, with emerging director Oliver Dawe at the helm.
The Dog, The Night and the Knife, Dawe tells me, when we sit down to discuss the venture, is about a man, ‘M’, who wakes up lost in a nightmare world. Unable to find his way out, M meets a myriad of terrifying characters along the way. Unlike Kafka’s The Trial, which the play draws inspiration from, where a man is condemned for a crime he never commits, in The Dog, The Night and the Knife M is never condemned for the multiple crimes he commits, in a world where the prevailing rule is “stab or be stabbed”. “It’s political with a small p,” Dawe tells me. “It’s about a bigger idea: it’s about people, which is what politics means, it’s about the human condition, and the fact that we are lost in a world which we don’t really understand.”
Dawe is sure to point out, though, that the play doesn’t offer any solutions to these huge questions. He feels, as a director, that it’s not his role to offer his own opinions, but to provoke: “The questions the play poses, no-one has the definitive answer to. The whole point is that to even ask that question of yourself is the most important thing you can do.” Dawe wants to make sure that the audience is “never just sitting passively in the dark,” but being engaged on an imaginative as well as human level. He feels theatre is often too literal: that we’ve become used to seeing a “manufactured reality, where, in fact, our imaginations will always do better.” To him, it’s about the power of suggestion, of prompting the audience to fill in the gaps rather than be told what to think by the playwright or the director.
Indeed, while believing we should “do theatre as theatre,” in this way, Dawe makes the interesting point that this production won’t necessarily play into all of the audience’s expectations of what theatre is. “In the British theatre tradition we’re used to plays that have a heart,” he explains. “Marius’s plays have been renowned for being penetratingly clever and clinical, especially this one. It’s devoid of sentiment and it’s full of ideas, and it can be a different thing to see a play that works this way.”
Dawe rightly points out that a standpoint to success can often be whether an audience has been moved by a play, going on to point out that “it’s easy to turn the screws of your heart; the harder thing to do is to remove sentiment, but still move you – in terms of yourself as a human, politically, and who you are in the world.” Indeed in Dawe’s view, the bottom line with directing, and in a wider sense, making theatre is prompting discussion and self-reflection as well as imaginative involvement in the story alongside an awareness of its very existence as a conceit; examining “the why and not the what,” as he puts it.
And this is Dawe’s mantra with The Dog, the Night and the Knife, as with all directing projects he approaches, based on the staunch belief that “the reason people come is they come to discover a bit more about the society they’re in, themselves, humanity as a whole. Whatever it is, they come to discover something.” Equally, when I ask Dawe about his overall approach to directing as a career, his response is just as well thought-out and refreshing: “A career is what you have when you work in finance,” he tells me. “There, you can work your way up a ladder. We are not in a job that works like that. Ignore this idea of ‘career’, because it doesn’t exist.”
These are certainly sage and possibly reassuring words for other early career directors trying to find a path into the industry. And indeed, where others may wait for opportunities to come their way, Dawe has taken matters into his own hands in forming RIVE Productions to present The Dog, The Night and the Knife. “You have to build with the bricks that you have,” he explains. “You beg, you borrow and you steal, because in the end what is important is the work. You are an artist.” And it is clear that art is at the heart of what Dawe does, and seeks to do: “I am not about result-driven theatre,” he explains when we discuss his rehearsal process, “I have no idea what this play is going to be like. I have an idea in my head of what it might be, but the likelihood of it being that way is very slim. I can only go with what happens in the rehearsal room, and what happens in that room will always be right.”
An exciting and terrifying prospect for Dawe in equal measure I’m sure, but for someone who seems to know his own mind so well it seems certain that the play is in safe hands. And indeed, speaking to Dawe about the production, its politics, the wider workings of British theatre and his own place within that as a theatre-maker, it certainly sounds like this play and indeed his work to come will be well worth seeing. When I ask him why audience’s ought to check out The Dog, the Night and the Knife, he is quick to sing the praises of the playwright, “Marius paints in pictures as well as words: it’s visually arresting and it’s funny. It’s really funny, thrilling and exciting. And it will give you questions – but it won’t give you the answers.”
The Dog, the Night and the Knife is at the Arcola Thetare from 18 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Arcola’s website.