Although it is not often acknowledged, the real purpose of theatre is not primarily entertainment, but rather to provide a platform for social and political commentary on issues society needs to be confronted with. That is why great theatre is not always easy-to-watch theatre, but it lingers in the perceptions it makes you question. If commentary-theatre leaves you unfazed, it did not succeed in its purpose.
When the highly acclaimed Cock and Bull Story was first penned by Richard Crowe and Richard Zajdlic in 1987 it was definitely such a purpose driven ground-breaking production. It presented a delicate exploration of friendship and mutual dependence that hinted of prejudice and fear as questions of sexuality were exposed in a conflict scenario between two best friends.
A testosterone driven play if there ever was one, Marthinus Basson’s current adaption and translation (equal parts Afrikaans and English) of a Cock and Bull Story, set in a locker room, again invites audiences into this identity struggle situation. But, it being 30 years later since the original staging, audience are now more open to the idea of sexuality based plays. So as you take your theatre seat, you expect something a little less delicate, more hard-hitting, even a bit braver, than the original commentary perspective when called upon to experience the emotional struggle of two friends faced with the prejudice-tainted reality that one of them may be gay.
As you meet TJ (the up-and-coming boxer labelled by his peers as gay) and his street-smart ‘supportive’ friend Jaco (who struggles to deal with the idea that this may be true), you realise that the play has been brilliantly localised, at least if you are familiar with Northern Suburbs lingo. Being a Northern Suburbs girl myself, I could visualise the pub-like context TJ and Jaco often referenced, nod acknowledgingly at the overly-manly guy-talk bravado showcased, as well as hear the guys I grew up with echo phrases used on stage, like “Ek gaan nou mission”. Basson and his team definitely successfully brings a Boston Bellville inspired flair to the stage.
The use of the theatre space, lighting and even the absence of sound apart from the two voices, balanced with the power of visual reflections (a clear commentary on hidden identity), also presents an inspired canvas for the exploration of the societal prejudice and personal friendship issues at hand.
However, although Dean-John Smith as TJ was brilliant in showcasing the fear, angst, bravery and confusion of his character confronted with the question of his sexuality, I was left wanting more of the play as a complete package. I wanted the production to show more depth of character in addressing the conflict points. I was left wanting the impact of the issue of sexuality on the friendship between TJ and Jaco to be explored to its conclusion, instead of just seeing it fizzle away into subtle denial.
The play has great potential, but may have missed the mark in exploring the full commentary power it holds. Overall, I don’t regret having seen a Cock and Bull Story. Parts of the text were beautifully delivered and there were moments that made me pause and reflect upon the complexities highlighted; I could definitely see the internal emotional struggle of TJ and Jaco ripple through their friendship. Sadly though, I was not completely drawn into their struggle. This may have been different had I bought into the Jaco character (played by Edwin van der Walt) more. If Jaco’s streetfighter lifestyle was perhaps explored in more depth earlier on in the play, as background context, one may be better placed to understand the root of his prejudice that clearly takes his friend TJ by surprise.
A complex emotive play dealing with a complex prejudice driven issue, in perhaps a too simplistic manner, it is still worth a visit to the theatre. Even if the full production may not bowl audiences over completely, it is really a treat to experience the amazing set design and to see Dean-John Smith own the stage. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for plays featuring this talented young actor.
So book your tickets at Computicket to see this play at Theatre on the Bay before run ends 28 May and let @TheatreSceneCpt know if you agree with the strength of the commentary a Cock and Bull Story brings to the stage. As always any form of art is subjective, and you may just see a brilliant angle to this production that I have missed.