Mate is the story of a young man and his dog … and the dog’s friends and the man’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s sleazy Italian lover. Jim (Jared Goldsmith, understated but appealing) is a young artist who receives a shock one day when his girlfriend, Tamsen (Jessica Davenport-Hortle), decides he’s a loser and breaks up with him. Jim doesn’t put up much of a fight – well, Tamsen doesn’t let him get a word in – but at least his dog, Mate (skilfully played by Ivano Del Pio), is there to commiserate. Yes, Mate can talk - understood only by his owner, the “boss” - and is truly Jim’s best friend. Jim mopes; his mood not helped by the fact that Tamsen keeps dropping by to gloat about her new man, a wealthy art dealer named Marcello (capably portrayed by Rainor Tippett, although a Versace suit might have helped). It turns out Marcello is interested in Jim’s paintings and suddenly events take a promising turn. As his confidence rises Jim also learns to assert himself – but will he be willing to pay the price for success?
The play’s depiction of the art world is irritatingly facile. Jim, for instance, doesn’t seem to have any ideas but is (naturally) a brilliant and undiscovered talent. Scenes involving Tamsen and Marcello veer dangerously into melodrama, with Marcello as the moustache-twirling villain, and are the least interesting in Mate. Most disturbingly, Tamsen is not a real person, merely the playwright’s representation of a ‘bad girlfriend’ - lacking in faith or loyalty, utterly superficial, and capable of self-reflection only under the most extreme provocation. Unfortunately Davenport-Hortle performs the role just as written, attempting little in the way of subtext. It’s difficult to see why Jim and Tamsen were ever together, let alone care whether they reconcile.
Mate, meanwhile, a lovable scallywag, spends time in the park with his pals – Caitlin (Emma Woodcock), a pearl-wearing Irish Wolfhound with a philosophical bent, Sarge (James Casey), owned by a policeman and convinced he’s one himself, and Claude, an absurdly energetic terrier pup (also played by Emma Woodcock). The dogs play catch with Jim, and discuss their lives; supporting each other through the hard times. The most important thing, they remind each other, is that “Dog and Boss are one”. Loyalty is a dog’s raison d’etre, the play tells us (in sharp contrast to Tamsen, of course, but then human beings can hardly be compared with pets. Can they?). The friendship between Jim and Mate is rather sweet, but occasionally ventures into odd areas. It may be funny, for instance, but there’s something a bit creepy about a dog who takes a keen interest in his owner’s sex life.
There’s some fantastic physical comedy in Mate, with the actors playing the dogs inhabiting their roles with ease and idiosyncracy. The play’s depiction of the ‘secret life of dogs’, although stereotypical in many respects, is a pleasure to watch and ideally suited to the stage. The concept of a talking dog took on a more surreal tone when attempted on television in Wilfred, Jason Gann and Adam Zwar’s darkly funny SBS show. Mate may well have been inspired by Wilfred but is a departure, developing the man/dog relationship more fully and abandoning cynicism in favour of heart-felt sentiment.
The dogs in Mate have some truly moving moments – like poor Sarge having a bad dream about the day his owner was shot, and Caitlin, suffering from cancer, facing up to the end of her days. It’s a pity that some of these highlights are stepped on by the overuse of music. In a sense, Mate is more about dogs than it is about people - what we can learn from them, what they know that we don’t, and what wonderful creatures they really are. If you’re into dogs, you’ll find much to enjoy here.
The Old Nick Company presents
Written & directed by David Lander
Venue: Peacock Theatre | 77 Salamanca Place, Hobart
Dates: Oct 5 to 20 Times: 8pm Wednesday to Saturday, 5pm Sunday
Bookings: (03) 62 34 5998