Director Meng Jinghui is a cult theatre superstar in China and the National Theatre of China is one of the most influential companies in Asia. I can’t think of an equivalent Australian company, but maybe his works are seen with the kind of obsession that Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is seen in New York. Since its debut in 2006, Two Dogs has been performed around the world over 1000 times by Liu Xiaoye and Wang Yin. And with its high degree of improvisation – the running time ranges from 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes – fans come back.
There are only four chances to see it at the Melbourne Festival, and I have no doubt that many are seeing it more than once.
Apart from the people who walked out, clearly unimpressed that anyone dare perform work that they don’t understand.
The company’s Rhinoceros in Love was at MIAF 2011 and Meng was brought to Melbourne by Malthouse theatre to direct The Good Person of Szechuan in 2014. After being totally lost in Rhinoceros but totally understanding Szechuan, I thought I was ready to break down all language barriers for Two Dogs.
But it’s not as simple as language.
As the two dogs leave their rural home for the city, the influence of Brecht is clear, the deconstruction of Chinese traditional theatre is easily assumed, and the commentary on contemporary television culture is shared – and that’s where the understanding nearly ends.
The subtitles don’t sync with action and most are stuck being too literal to make sense – except “Actor Improvising” – which also leaves them too easy for English speakers to laugh at.
I think it’s like describing the Little Baby Cheeses statue in Kath and Kim as “A woman buys cheese for her mother”. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t get near the multiple levels of ingrained cultural understanding that support the joke; let alone explain language and accents, suburban Christianity, Fountaingate shopping centre, frizzy hair or why Aussie kids like a “noice” cheese in their lunchbox.
I’m certain that Two Dogs is genius comedy. The mostly Mandarin-speaking (and mostly young) audience were in tears. Friends repeated phrases heard on stage, people were rocking in their seats and whipped out mobile phones when the performers sang.
During the improvisations, I hoped they were talking about the white grumpy people in the room who had come to the Festival for some Chinese culture and wisdom and so far the only thing they understood was a fart joke.
The joyous insanity of Two Dogs is so much more than getting the jokes. There’s something liberating about being surrounded by something that you know you’re so close to understanding, but can’t find the way in. And if you laugh when everyone else laughs, it’s easy to enjoy yourself and feel fantastic for having laughed for over two hours – even if you’re just laughing at yourself.