Fast and Furious Plays About Power
Cock and Bull, by Mike Bartlett, directed by Rod Beilfuss, at Platform Centre, through Oct. 4, 2014
Reviewed by Chandra Mayor
Cock and Bull are short, sharp, fast and furious plays about power – who has it, what they’ll do to keep it, and what it costs to lose it, and who pays that price. Contemporary English playwright Mike Bartlett has set up each of these pieces as a fight between the powerful and the powerless, the weak and the strong.
That fight between weak and strong is the implication in each title, and the mandate for the staging: a boxing ring in Bull, and a metaphorical alley in Cock. The fight is the driving narrative force; these extremely verbally adroit characters are willing or provoked into inflicting total emotional annihilation upon each other (and sometimes themselves) in the service of winning the fight. Bartlett’s scripts are crafted to draw the audience inexorably into the fights. The audience is seated surrounding the actors, and we spend our time under the same excruciatingly bright lights. The staging reminds us that these fights are brutal performative rituals, and that we are not meant to be comfortable nor allowed to be passive or uninvolved. Bartlett urges us to become emotionally complicit in the most awful ways – to experience the delicious illicit thrill of holding someone’s heart in our own tightening fist, the bloodlust of the hunt, the secret contempt for the weak, and the intoxicating satisfaction of breaking someone utterly.
These are ugly things. The power of Bartlett’s scripts is that he doesn’t hesitate to take his characters and his audience into these ugly worlds, in the plays and in ourselves. He doesn’t moralize or over-simplify, and the plays must reach their full power when they startle us by revealing our own capacities for petty monstrosity.
Unfortunately, Theatre by the River’s productions of Bartlett’s pieces undermine the plays’ power, and despite some lovely moments, neither show achieves the depth or intensity that these scripts demand.
Performed on alternating nights with the same cast, these two plays explore the same themes of power and bullying, but in two completely different scenarios. Cock is the story of John (Derek Leenhouts), John’s longterm male lover M (Karl Thordarson), and his new female lover W (Mel Marginet). John is a spineless waffler, a less-than-noble Hamlet, stringing both of them along and unable (or unwilling) to decide between them. The triangle culminates in a dinner party from hell, also attended by F (Kevin Anderson), M’s father.
Leenhouts is the best thing about this production. It would be simple to play John as the villain, but Leenhouts’s performance is vulnerable, complex, and very compelling. Neither Marginet nor Thordarson can match this emotional depth, and this completely distorts the dynamic between the three characters. Under the direction of Rod Beilfuss, Thordarson spends most of the play shouting at John; worse than abusive, this one-note characterization becomes tedious. Marginet’s performance is also oddly flat; whether she’s hopeful or hurt, falling in love or furious, most of her lines are delivered in the same tone of voice and with the same facial expression. It’s hard to detect intimacy or to believe in a relationship of any sort between John and M, or John and W. Especially in contrast to Leenhouts’s emotionally raw performance, M and W come across as parodic and weirdly predatory, and it ends up feeling like two entirely different kinds of plays are happening on stage.
Anderson gives a compelling and believable performance as M’s father, intervening to save the relationship between his son and John, but by the time he appears on stage, the trajectory has already become irredeemably confused. The flat performances, the too-rapid pacing, and the strange doh-si-doh choreography of the characters (from one side of the stage to the other, only to swing round again) work in terrible tandem to ensure that M and W don’t feel real. It’s hard for us to care about them, and we cheer for John almost by default without ever quite recognizing (or reckoning with) the genuine destructiveness of his inability to choose between them. Why did any of them fall in love with each other? Why does John want to be with either of them? Beilfuss’s directorial choices, plus these very uneven performances, keep us stuck in these baffling basics, and we never get to move on to the more complicated and interesting questions implicit in Bartlett’s script.
All of Bartlett’s characters, in both plays, are consumed and motivated by power, yet each feels the need to cloak their own power-plays in various situational or pseudo-philosophical defenses. John’s power comes from his weakness, his inability to choose or commit. His indecisiveness gives him the upper hand by trapping his lovers in limbo as they wait for him to choose; yet, rather than admit (even to himself) how much he relishes this power, John creates a smoke-and-mirrors narrative about the constraints of sexuality – he would have us believe that it’s not that he’s being unfair to M and W, but rather that he too is a victim of a larger societal injustice because of the limitations of sexual identity labels. This is hardly ground-breaking; Bowie built a gorgeous and glittered career on the refusal of gay/straight “labels” forty years ago. In more experienced hands and with performances better matched in strength and depth, the strength and depth of the script could have come through, and we might have been more suspicious of John’s political posturing, revealing something much more interesting and taboo – his own voracious, unacknowledged monster within.
Bull is set in contemporary corporate culture. Again, the point of Bartlett’s script can’t simply be that corporate capitalism creates and encourages power plays and predation; from Monty Python’s corporate takeover accounting pirates to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, we’re pretty clear about that already. These characters are using the language and justifications of economics and Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest to obfuscate the dark heart of this play: this thing in us that sniffs out and despises weakness, this thing that thrills at the kill.
Thomas (Leenhouts), Tony (Thordarson), and Isobel (Marginet) wait together in a conference room for their boss, Carter (Anderson). Carter will fire one of them. Tony and Isobel have already decided that Thomas will be sacrificed, and they methodically set about destroying Thomas’s confidence, competence, and even sanity. It’s gruesome to watch. Again, Leehouts delivers the most emotionally compelling performance, excruciatingly vulnerable. It’s like watching an animal caught in a trap; all our sympathy goes to the rabbit. Thordarson’s exaggerated style works better in this play; unlike M, the betrayed lover, Tony’s a pretty straight-forward sociopathic, over-privileged American Psycho/Wolf of Wall Street kind of guy, and Thordaron’s portrayal is often genuinely funny. Marginet’s performance as the equally sociopathic Isobel, however, is almost robotic, and far less effective.
In this production of Bartlett’s play, we empathize utterly with Thomas, and we begin to wonder what the point of all of this is. But the matador is the crowd favourite in a bull fight; the crowd admires his skill and finesse, and they want to see him triumph over the dumb brute animal in an orgy of identification, a ritualistic release of tension and fear, a necessary and lethal scapegoating. Different choices in performance and direction might have encouraged the audience to experience more complicated (and conflicting) feelings of empathy and identification. How do the Carters of the world (again, compellingly portrayed by Anderson) command not just fear, but respect? How could we have become complicit in the destruction of Thomas, and what would that have felt like?
These productions came close to asking these questions, but couldn’t quite form them. The plays themselves, regardless of uneven delivery, contain enough good lines and interesting ideas to fuel some entertaining and engaging post-theatre coffee and conversation, and some of the performances are truly wonderful. Bull has a number of laugh-out-loud moments – especially for anyone who needs some relief and release from their own predatory workplaces.
Cock opens the door for different understandings and perspectives on sexuality and sexual identity in middle class Euro/North American contexts, even if the production itself isn’t quite polished or nuanced to walk through that door into a deeper discussion. And while neither play is as interactive with the audience as the director’s notes promise (the audience sits closer but still watches passively, our interaction limited to the same kind of imaginative engagement that one brings to any performance), this company is trying to experiment with offering a different kind of theatrical experience. A willingness to take risks, even when they don’t quite pay off, is commendable. And stretching oneself a little further than what’s currently in reach is also commendable, and should be supported.
Cock and Bull, by Mike Bartlett, presented by Theatre by the River, directed by Rodrigo Beilfuss, runs in repertory through Oct. 4, 2014, at Platform Centre, ArtSpace Building, 100 Arthur St., Winnipeg MB.