The National Theatre of China’s self-referential, metatheatrical dark farce tracks two ‘dogs’ (performed by Liu Xiaoye and Wang Yin) as they travel from the countryside to a city full of ruff-ians, wealthy humans, and furious cats.
Most of the scenes are deeply entertaining – the craft of the wordplay and the performers’ physical comedic timing are impeccable. Most scenes also bubble politically – Wang Cai’s (Liu Xiaoye) rise through the prison ranks through a mostly accidental haplessness points towards the ease of co-opting violence and power no matter how innocent we are.
The barely-there fourth wall is also ripped to shreds with the help of house lights persistently turning on to light the way for latecomers. The lights also come on to help with the ‘dogs’ openly raiding audiences’ wallets for cash to get home; the universal joke about art not being profitable sits uncomfortably against the current state of arts funding. The rest of the stage was also subtly delineated through lighting: a narrow corridor across the back of the stage efficiently evoked jail cell, while another simple soft light cast a halo effect in one of the more poignant monologues of the show.
The live guitarists to the side of the stage were used sparingly and as part of a tightly crafted soundscape, with only occasional intrusions that introduced extended song sequences, or to cover scene transitions. As with the set, which was similarly sparse besides a few key pieces, the bulk of the world-building work is left to the actors, who hilariously and more than adequately produce their own sounds and become their own set pieces.
Though perhaps reminiscent of Waiting for Godot for those more familiar with the Western canon, the sparseness of the set seemed to mock the lavish aesthetic often used by larger theatre companies to depict apocalyptic barrenness. The set seemed deliberately haphazard, with few pieces beyond an ugly armchair, a lone tire and some suspiciously clean metal drums.
Two Dogs is absurdist slapstick is an enjoyably romp through a familiar tale about travelling to the big city only to be let down by rent-free living accompanied by harsh beatings, and half-arsed surgery by money-grubbing surgeons. Other than touching on class relations and the disillusionment of China’s lower classes, the narrative also leaves room—especially considering the seats were primarily full of fluent speakers from an international audience—for contemplations about homesickness and the displacement of identity.
The production’s slippery journey between the stage and the fourth wall is also paralleled by the commentary around the English surtitling of the mostly-Mandarin performance. While not untrue that the surtitles were incorrectly timed and often in large chunks onscreen, the gripes about ‘sloppy’ surtitling efforts reveals an arrogant assumption that a show should have invested more in the interest of non-Mandarin speakers. How dare this internationally touring show made by Mandarin-speaking artists for a Mandarin-fluent audience not be totally accessible to non-Mandarin speaking audiences! How dare the linguistically and culturally-specific puns not transcend all barriers to make perfect sense in text of another language! How dare the improvised sections be so long and not translated!
As a native Mandarin speaker, a great deal of my enjoyment of the show was actually formed by the schadenfreude of watching non-Mandarin speakers struggle to keep up. The performers and the production were also very aware of this ‘shortcoming’. A recurring improvised strain of commentary—delivered primarily in Mandarin—was about exactly the failure of the surtitles to keep up their ‘translation’ and the lack of comprehension on some faces.
In fact, this linguistic struggle demonstrates a key concern of Two Dogs surrounding the difficulties of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic translation of content or of identity. The characters, trying to cross class borders, meet government-sanctioned structural hurdle after structural hurdle; the production, trying to cross international borders, meet culturally-sanctioned linguistic hurdle after linguistic hurdle. In that struggle, a key question returns again and again to haunt the audience: the grass might look greener on the other side, but is it really any better?