Dogfight, the new musical that has arrived at Southwark Playhouse from Off-Broadway where it was originally premiered in 2012, is a challenging and provocative show that packs a surprising punch.
It’s a portrait of men about to go to war and having one last night out before they do. It could be From Here to Eternity crossed with On the Town.
But it turns out to be far richer and more dramatically complex than either. It’s not quite blessed with the same electrifying score as Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, but it has a very serviceably melodic one from young New York-based writers (Benj) Pasek and (Justin) Paul.
And it turns out to have provoked the kind of extremely polarising critical reaction that shows it has truly touched a nerve.
He quotes extracts from two of the reviews:
A great bleeding chunk of Vietnam-era misogyny
– Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard
[A] cheerily uncritical depiction of hateful misogyny
– Jane Shilling, the Daily Telegraph
Rebecca Trehearn, one of the cast’s leads, actually provided a fascinating chart in which she laid out the reviews, for and against, side-by-side on her blog. And, declaring herself to be “a woman who proudly identifies herself as a feminist”, she sets up a brilliant defence of the show:
To those who have instantly cried misogyny at the premise of the show, who have bemoaned the marines’ treatment of the women and claimed their behaviour is swept under the carpet with uncomfortable ease; I can’t help but wonder if this is in some part a kneejerk reaction, maybe stemming from a sense of obligation to unequivocally condemn any and all bad male behaviour, without necessarily taking the time to try to contextualise and understand it?
We are talking about a group of marines, a mere 13 weeks into their training, about to be packed off to a country they know next to nothing of, many, many miles from home. A group of boys, some not even out of their teens. A group of scared children, the majority likely fairly uneducated, who have been drilled into turning a blind eye to the humanity of anyone but their military comrades. For how else can you demand of a group of teenage boys that they travel halfway around the world and kill with zero compunction?
Trehearn makes some other really interesting points, about such things as the feelings of the performers playing these supposedly unattractive women (she herself has some artificially blackened teeth in the show):
I do think it worth quoting the authors’ note in the script – “the only requirement is that the audience not identify the women chosen as conventionally attractive within the context of 1963 America” (there’s that magic word again, context…) Plus; jeez, we’re actors. I could write all day about the sheer fun involved in playing someone who is not exactly the girl next door!
Paul Taylor quotes fellow critic Christopher Ricks line: “Great art refuses to play safe and derives its power, in part, by always running the risk of being misinterpreted.”
Taylor adds: “Alf Garnett would not have been the force he was if Till Death Us Do Part had not been open to being perceived by some as a vehicle for his unfortunate views.”
Certainly there’s an interesting debate here and perhaps some have proved blind to what the show is trying to show. Maybe that’s because it is, in another sense, an absolutely blinding show: one of the very best new musicals in town. All credit to producer Danielle Tarento for bringing it to London and letting us see it in such an arresting production by Matt Ryan. I’ve been twice already and plan on returning again before it closes.