Reviews Published 27 April 2017

Review: Cock and Bull at Southbank Centre

Politics and pain: Nic Green’s performance is an artful exploration of rhetoric and deceit.

Alice Saville
Cock and Bull at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

Cock and Bull at Southbank Centre.

“When I am laid, am laid in earth” – Dido’s Lament, by Purcell, might just be the most emo piece of classic music out there, and I can’t type that line without hearing its graceful slide down the scale into gloomy muddied depths. In Nic Green’s Cock and Bull, it becomes an emotionless child’s chant, recorded kids’ voices looped and layered like a playground plainsong.

It’s a mix of high performative drama and mechanical emptiness that’s typical of the piece as a whole. Sitting somewhere on the boundary lines between theatre, live art and dance, it’s an exploration of politics as a series of empty gestures and words, formalised rhetorical structures repeated in endless, stiff iterations. Or politics as a juddering broken record, which manages to keep up the illusion that it’s still turning while digging down deeper into the same old groove.

Three women perform it, standing stolidly in generic business suits, their hands and mouths covered in gold paint (a reference to politicians born with silver spoons in their mouths, maybe, or to the social polish that a gilded education can buy). Each has a kind of wonderful sturdiness on stage that’s rare, and great to see. And by sturdiness, I don’t mean physical strength, necessarily – more that they claim the stage like a man would.

Rosana Cade opens the performance with a brief speech (delivered in suitably statesmanlike style, obviously) about how the performance originated two years before, in Glasgow’s The Arches, on the eve of the general election that brought David Cameron to power. We don’t need it. This is work that stands alone – even after Cameron and the Bullingdon boys have been half-replaced by Theresa May and Brexiteering as targets for satirists.

Because what it does is expresses the weirdness of how we festishise power, and political strength. What May’s ascendency has proved, as much as anything, is that people want a ‘strong’ leader, one who can repeat the same lines over and over with their feet planted squarely and a shine on their shoes. And Corbyn’s slow fall has shown that emotions in politics are still seen a sign of weakness – there to be stirred up, but not felt.

Cock and Bull’s emotional power builds gradually, and doesn’t peak until after we’ve had a good side-splitting guffaw at the shameless, ballsy ridiculousness of these men, these oversexed, stiff-jointed, Brookes Brothers-mannequins-made-flesh. It comes, in part, from this performance’s beauty – from the way that fluent gestures unfurl in pools of light, repeated threefold. But more than that, it comes from the carefully-managed way that it lets the three performers’ vulnerability seep out, letting moments of discomfort reel out, slowly, into a prolonged howl of pain.

On the eve of David Cameron’s election, it felt like everyone was asking why theatre wasn’t more political. Now, there’s a huge and ungainly swamp of work trying to make sense of the turmoil of the past couple of years – sometimes, especially post-Brexit, bearing an uncomfortable strain of petulance. “How dare politics intrude on my life?”, it seems to say.

What Cock and Bull replies is that modern politics isn’t about you, however much it intones ‘people, people, people’ and goes through the barest motions of compassion. It’s an impersonal, deliberately incomprehensible machine that’s always there, and always whirring – and always screwing someone over, even if it’s leaving you in peace. And more importantly, it’s a performance that gives you space to think about what that means, in a quiet, luminously brilliant, meditation on politics and pain.

Cock and Bull is on at Southbank Centre until April 30th. More info here.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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