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BWW Review: Stellar Performances in A COCK AND BULL STORY, Though the Production Itself Pulls its Punches

Dean John Smith and Edwin van der Walt
in A COCK AND BULL STORY

Richard Crowe and Richard Zajdlic's A COCK AND BULL STORY is back on stage in South Africa, in a production by the director that staged its South African premiere thirty years ago. That production starred Jamie Bartlett and David Butler, with Bartlett winning a Vita Award as the Best Up and Coming Actor of 1987. More recently, there was an attempt to revive the play in the 2014-2015 season, with Michael Kirch directing Rowan Studi and Dylan Skews in a 65-minute version at the Alexander Bars Upstairs Theatre. This production failed to gain traction beyond the fringe theatre scene despite its attempts to rework the play to suit a local setting. This year, Marthinus Basson directs Dean-John Smith and Edwin van der Walt under the banner of RaminiDam, the new production company that Basson has founded with Chris Pienaar.

A COCK AND BULL STORY sees a young boxer - Travis originally, TJ in this production - and a mate who psyches him up for his matches - then Jacko, now Jaco - confront one of their deepest prejudices. On the night of a match that could catapult TJ into a major boxing career, the pair spar in the dressing room. Sex and sexuality are hot topics for the two men. They talk big about their sexual exploits with women and the crude sexual fantasies they harbour. Jokes about who has the bigger penis segue into conversations about the way some men look at other men at urinals. But whatever the subject, the dialogue between the two is characterised by a latent violence that builds throughout the play until, following a couple of revelations in the second act, it breaks free and shifts the relationship between the two friends forever.

Dean John Smith and Edwin van der Walt
in A COCK AND BULL STORY

Quentin Krog and Geon Nel's localised adaptation makes this British piece feel strikingly South African. Their work is excellent, one of the best applications of this particular approach to international theatre pieces on our local stages. Many productions are satisfied to implement cosmetic changes and call it a day. But Krog and Nel do far more than change the setting of the play to Boston, alter the race of one of the characters and add some colourful local slang to the piece. There is nothing superficial about their approach at all. Although some of the dustier traditions of 1980s British drama are still evident in the piece, the two adaptors work with the very tissue of the play, reanimating it almost entirely by working the socio-economic context of their new Capetonian setting into the material and addressing the language in every component of its linguistics.

A COCK AND BULL STORY has, since its inception, been an actor-driven play. Seeing two exceptional, equally accomplished performances bring it to life - as is the case in this production - is like catching lightening in a bottle. The outstanding work delivered by Smith and Van der Walt is completely engrossing. Smith elicits plenty of sympathy as TJ, a kid aching to sit at a table of masculinity curated by Jaco, whose conflict is neatly pitched and played out by Van der Walt. The pair deftly navigates the shifting relationship between the two friends, nailing a series of swift but fully realised developments in the characters.

Dean John Smith and Edwin van der Walt
in A COCK AND BULL STORY

Basson's direction of A COCK AND BULL STORY is at its best when it mimics the rhythms of a boxing match, round by round though clinches, knockdowns and fouls. In a play that does not lead to a knockout, the production needs to go the distance and there is evidence of some uncertainty in the handling of the direction, with some of the choices made feeling rather glossed over. The mimed stage action before both acts of the play, for instance, is neither unobtrusive nor particularly compelling. It just happens, a superfluous framework that does not escalate the potency of the performance. Ultimately, neither does a character tic geared towards doing just that: Jaco spends a fair deal of the play tossing a set of darts around the set, a motif that seems to be going somewhere, but which disappears just as the production pushes forward towards its key moments.

The design, also by Basson, has two key features, a glorious orange mat that in conjunction with Pienaar's lighting defines the space brilliantly, and a mirror that faces the audience, reflecting and distorting the responses from the house. A technique similar to that employed by Harold Prince in his original production of CABARET, the mirror attempts to implicate the audience in perpetuating the systemic homophobia that delineates the territory explored in A COCK AND BULL STORY. And yet, behind the proscenium arch at Theatre on the Bay, the presentation to the audience of what is a brutal reality with brutal consequences plays out in the politest, safest manner possible. Built around division, competition and confrontational violence, A COCK AND BULL STORY cries out to be played in traverse or the round - just like a boxing match. That being impossible in a conventional space like Theatre on the Bay, the mirror makes for a good compromise - but it remains a compromise.

Dean John Smith and Edwin van der
Walt in A COCK AND BULL STORY

On the night that I attended A COCK AND BULL STORY, the audience response was enthusiastic, but more restrained than ebullient when the metaphorical final curtain fell. Ultimately, something was missing in the experience of watching this play. What made it less resonant than other excellently localised adaptations, like Yael Farber's MIES JULIE, or other explorations of systemic homophobia, like Philip Rademeyer's ASHES? Perhaps it was the distance that the comforts of a Camps Bay theatre experience places between the play and the audience. You need to feel the sweat and heat that oozes from the pores of the play, but rather than hit you in the gut, A COCK AND BULL STORY pulls its punches. Nonetheless, the two performances around which the production is built are stellar, most likely some of the best work South African audiences will see on stage this year.

A COCK AND BULL STORY runs at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town until 28 May, after which it transfers to the Pieter Toerien Studio in Johannesburg from 1 June - 3 July. The 90-minute play is performed in English and Afrikaans. Tickets, ranging from R100 - R180, are available through Computicket.



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From This Author David Fick