Be A Better Dog: Motswiri marks his territory

Seiphemo Alex Motswiri performs as part of the play Be a Better Dog at the N G Kerksaal in Grahamstown on 4 July 2016 at the National Arts Festival. Motswiri directed and performed in the piece. (Photo: CuePix/Jeffrey Stretton-Bell)

Seiphemo Alex Motswiri performs in Be a Better Dog at the N G Kerksaal in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival. Photo: CuePix/Jeffrey Stretton-Bell

There is a wonderful novel by Paul Auster called Timbuktu. Published in 1999, the entire book consists of the internal monologue of a dog called Mr Bones.

It has been adapted for the stage at least once – by Croatian director Borut Šeparović – and I don’t know whether Seiphemo Motswiri’s play is influenced by Auster but he similarly presents a dog’s view of the world in Be A Better Dog.

Like Timbuktu, Be A Better Dog is not a fiction about dogs, it is a story about humans conveyed by a dog.

The question of heaven, or the afterlife, is a further parallel. Mr Bones’s owner, who believes heaven is a place called Timbuktu, is dying. This causes Mr Bones some anxiety, which is compounded by his concern that dogs are not allowed to enter this heaven. Death and separation anxiety, as well as the innate rift in understanding between man and animal is also evident in Motswiri’s play.

Similarities end there. Unlike Mr Bones, Motswiri’s canine protagonist is passed to a number of owners and endures different names, ‘Danger’ and ‘Nkandla’ among them and, although the work is competent, it does not reach the heights of Auster’s work.

Motswiri’s dog illuminates various aspects of South African society and the venality and virtue of the characters we encounter. These include a shebeen queen, a flash-in-the-pan kwaito artist, a boer, a young white Afrikaner couple and, most poignantly, a security guard at a Rustenberg mine.

Motswiri, who directs his own performance of a text written by Ikaneng Makhubalo, could take a few pointers from Auster’s approach in which the fact that the protagonist is a dog fades into the background. We forget we’re viewing the world from a canine consciousness. The protagonist’s outward physicality disappears to be replaced with an assault of smells, unrepressed sexual urges, peculiar fears and desires in such a straightforward manner that we come to assimilate them as our own.

Motswiri, however, continually reminds us of his canine nature, most discernibly through his questionable choice of costume – a brown and beige onesie – and by regularly reverting to unconvincingly miming a dogs’s actions. The result is we watch a man act as a dog rather than inhabiting a character, albeit an unusual one.

Although Motswiri possesses a forceful charisma that draws us into his unusual perspective, these poor directorial choices obscure rather than expand the depth of this work. I suspect a choice to more fully inhabit his character’s apprehension of human society would involve some changes to the script, such as paying more imaginative attention to sensory perception rather than concentrating on the physical attributes of the animal, but the effort could unleash the potential in this unexpectedly perceptive and political work.

As it stands, I would recommend Be A Better Dog it as a good introduction to the possibilities of theatre for children aged six to 12, but it is not billed under family fare. Thus I felt somewhat patronised by mediocre caricaturisation as much as I was intrigued by episodes of fine acting and nuanced observation.

Be A Better Dog runs on the National Arts Festival Fringe until Friday 8 July. Programme notes and bookings here.

— Steve Kretzmann


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