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The play’s called Cock but nobody wears a chicken suit: an interview with the director

Shane Bosher was the artistic director of Silo Theatre for many years and directed many of its most famous productions, including Angels in America, When the Rain Stops Falling and Holding the Man. Now he’s back in Auckland to direct two new Silo shows, Cock (co-presented with Auckland Live) and A Streetcar Named Desire. Sam Brooks talked to him about them both.

Sam Brooks: You’ve come back to Cock, after directing it a few years ago in Sydney. What’s that like?

Shane Bosher: I’ve returned to plays before after a small hiatus, but only ever really as an actor. I did a production of The Boys in the Band which I repeated like a year after we’d done it the first time, and similarly I had a solo show, A Star is Torn, which I did at various times over several years.

Cock is interesting because its been two and a half years since we did it, and there are two existing members of the original production and two new cast members, who are approaching the material for the first time, so we’re not just plugging in and playing the same old track.

We’ve started afresh with everybody, but for the people who were in the original production, there’s a weird sense of deja vu. Moments which have a kind of embedded memory, this embedded experiential memory.

So there’s been an interesting tension in the room of the two original actors re-finding their work, re-finding the story in them, and the other two finding the story for the first time. That creates a really dynamic energy because nobody is complacent and running at what they’ve done before.

Cock actors (from left) Matilda Ridgway, Duncan Ragg and Matt Minto in rehearsal. Photo: Simon London

The play is such a beautifully dense piece of work. On the surface, it’s a story about an infidelity, a guy cheats on his boyfriend with a woman, but when you dig deeper it’s a really beautiful commentary on how we interact in relationships, and it’s hyper-naturalistic, at least on the page. How do you even break into that as a director?

When I first read it, I was struck by the form that [playwright] Mike Bartlett uses, because, like a number of contemporary writers of his generation, he sets a series of rules for the actors and for the production. You originally read those, and then read the play and go, ‘Oh, he really trusts actors!’ You think he trusts them as storytellers and inheritors of the conversation he wants to have with audiences, but then you get it on the floor and discover actually, what he’s done is so specific that you have to really work to honour it.

So there’s a whole process of understanding that we had to go through as actors and directors to unpick what was happening and how each character was transforming from moment to moment. We’re taking the idea, as Mike Bartlett’s done, of comedy of manners and enlivening the conversation in each character between what it is that they are thinking and feeling, and what it is they are doing on top of that.

In acting we’ve become excited by the idea of being absolutely real and absolutely naturalistic, even to the point where we mumble everything, and this play doesn’t allow you to do this.

No, it’s so specific in what it needs the actors, and the production, to actually do.

So while Mike Bartlett has been very prescriptive, once you unpick it, once you acknowledge the structure, it actually does give you a weird sense of freedom.

And Mike was driven to write the play because – I can’t remember if he was in Spain or South America, but he was on a writer’s retreat and he had to come up with something. He was interested in writing a piece about identity and relationships but he couldn’t find a way in. Then he went to a cock fight.

Gross.

Duncan Ragg. Photo: Simon London

I mean you kind of have an expectation of what a cock fight is, but when you see what they are, they are these awful, brutal things. Perspex cages with fluoros on and lots of really grubby people, betting everything they own, it’s sort of extraordinarily base.

But he was looking at the survival tactics of each of the cocks in the ring, you know, seeing what they were doing. And he found it unlocked the idea of how we treat each other in relationships when conflict is brought up. What we do to survive.

The language he uses in the play is an exploration of that physical idea and we’ve really kind of celebrated that in the production. It creates a really physical production, although, I mean, nobody wears a chicken suit! Let’s just put that on the table. There are no people pecking each other.

But there is a really strong sense of choreographed movement. Because he says, ‘No set, no lights, no costumes, no props.’ Actually it’s the props that undo you.

Really? How so?

Because you read that and go, ‘Oh, what a great permission!’ And then you go, ‘Actually, he’s set this at a dinner party, with people saying “Pass the wine” and “How’s the beef?”‘. When you’re not allowed to use those things it forces you to come up with other ideas which are about exploring the subtextual terrain and how the characters are circling around each other and pushing each other and cajoling them to change.

The play feels so modern. How do you think audience will respond to the form?

I think its startling, to begin with, but it places the audience in a participatory space – and when I say that, I should preface that with, ‘There is no audience participation.’ What I mean by a participatory space is the audience are forced to create the world around the characters. They are given permission to colour in the colouring book. And we quite often forget that the stage is a place of make believe.

Not to get all Peter Pan and Wendy about it, but we can’t ever go, ‘Look at this horse,’ we have to find some other theatricalisation of a horse, unless we can find a horse wrangler and get a horse on stage. But with that we’re saying, ‘Join us in this space of make-believe and you will see that this is a horse.’

In this context there are things which the form gets you to experience in a different way. There’s a sex scene in the play, which if you were to stage literally, the audience would be deeply uncomfortable with what’s happening, but by extracting it and performing it with actors fully clothed and with a movement language around it, we want to give the audience permission to experience the transformation of intimacy that occurs in a whole other way than what they would get with some bad acting under a blanket. I think that, in a way, liberates an audience. And they do engage differently.

A rehearsal moment for Cock: Matt Minto, Shane Bosher, Duncan Ragg, Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Simon London

Can we talk about A Streetcar Named Desire?

Yeah, totally.

It’s a huge play. What does that mean to you?

Well it wasn’t the first play I ever read, because I’d been doing plays before that, but when I was at high school, I was one of those people who was reading far beyond my experience. And what I mean by that is, I was reading books and material which was too advanced for where I was sitting in life – too mature – so when I got to sixth and seventh form English, we would be reading all these books, and I’d read them all already.

I’d read Catcher in the Rye, I’d read King Lear, so yes I’d be studying them, but I’d be the person sitting on my hands in class because I knew all the answers because I’d read them and processed them and thought about them. So I had this English teacher, Lorelle Janae was her name. Fabulous. Crazy red hair.

Amazing. That is a great name.

So she gave me a copy of Streetcar – well it was three, it was Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie and Sweet Bird of Youth, and the copy is still in the Silo library now. It was the first proper play script I’d ever owned – because I never gave it back. But it was no longer in the syllabus at the time because it was all King Lear and Othello and The Merchant of Venice 

Oh good, Shakespeare.

Yeah – and I read it and I had no idea what it was really about but I was struck by the poetic lyricism and the deep, deep conversation about sexual hunger, and that was something I had certainly never read in a play before or experienced onstage. I was at that time going to see things at the Mercury in Auckland and in Hamilton where I grew up and it certainly wasn’t what I was experiencing on stage. And it’s one of those plays I’ve always wanted to do but been terrified of doing because there’s so much expectation around it.

Like what?

What I mean by that is, most people’s experience of the play, because it’s rarely performed –

Yeah, I haven’t seen it performed ever, actually.

Yeah the last production had Elizabeth Hawthorne, Kevin Smith, Danielle Cormack and Michael Lawrence. It was 2000 maybe?

Jesus, that’s insane.

And before that, there was a production at the Mercury, with Elizabeth, Paul Gittins, Mike Mizrahi and Sarah Peirse in like 1987 or something. And actually, Alison Bruce played the Mexican woman in that – there’s a bit of trivia – and George Henare was the Doctor and Peter Elliot played Pablo Gonzalez – as you do.

It’s rarely performed, so people’s experience of it is very much informed by the film. That’s how people know and understand Streetcar – so I suppose it’s quite terrifying to go, ‘Okay, here’s what I have to say with the play!’ So when I first started talking to Sophie [Roberts, artistic director of Silo Theatre] and Jess [Smith, Silo’s executive director] about doing it – I made it very clear I didn’t want to create a production that was rooted in nostalgia for an idea of America which sat over there, somewhere else entirely.

Absolutely.

In a way, presenting it in its period form has a risk, which is that it roots the play in a time and place and let’s us say, ‘We’re not like that’ and, ‘We don’t behave like that’ and, ‘My, my, haven’t things moved on!’ When actually there’s an essential quality to his storytelling in terms of what Tennessee Williams has to say about human relationship that is extraordinarily timeless.

Especially in terms of the way men and women behave with each other, in terms of how we do and don’t embrace honesty around our sexuality – and I don’t mean that necessarily in terms of homosexuality but in terms of our sexual functionality – and the roles we perform in our everyday life.

Besides, I was very conscious of wanting to avoid any historical memory of Marlon Brando or Vivien Leigh.

Which must be fucking hard.

Yeah! So we are articulating a contemporary experience of the play – it is set in America right now and one of the conversations I want to have right now is about how savage and brutal forces can eviscerate the fragile.

That’s potent.

Yeah! And Ryan O’Kane, who’s playing Stanley, came up with this really great re-deployment for Tennessee Williams’ original idea for Stanley and his friends being all ex-marines and working in the blue collar frame.

So in Sydney, where Ryan’s based most of the time, in Bondi Beach, there’s a concrete pad where men go, and often spend all day there – its a concrete pad with a jungle gym – and they work out. So there’s this extraordinary animalistic and toxic masculinity which circumnavigates that physical space, and then enlivens a whole series of behaviours and permissions in these men.

We then started talking about the alignment of Stanley in 1947 and Stanley now. Stanley in 1947 is a man who served in World War II, fought for his country America the Great, came home, and was basically told that as a result of that, he would inherit the earth. Whereas Stanley in 2017 served in Iraq or Afghanistan, came home and was basically told that he didn’t exist. And yet, he has recently been told that there is the capacity to make America great again, so he would have quite possibly have voted for Trump.

And a lot of his value systems and the social codes that he works in, you kind of listen to how real they are for him and, well, they aren’t alt-right but they aren’t too dissimilar. It’s very easy for us to go, ‘Oh, Stanley the bad guy and Blanche the misunderstood woman,’ but both characters are incredibly, wonderfully flawed and deeply human. In a way I kind of see them as flips of a similar type of person, you know, someone who with different parameters would have flourished in a different way.

Streetcar actors Morgana O’Reilly, Mia Blake and Ryan O’Kane. Photo Supplied by Silo Theatre.

You look at the way people treat war heroes, they do extraordinary things and animalistic behaviour is unlocked on the battlegrounds and then they are thrust back into normalcy and people go, ‘Get on with your lives, off you go.’

So quite possibly – and I don’t know the answer to this yet– but quite possibly, without the war, Stanley could have the capacity to be a completely different human being. Similarly Blanche could have. So I’m really interested in exploring those behavioural contradictions rather than limiting it to expectations of ‘Stanley the bad guy’.

There’s something that a friend said to me about the play – we don’t know that Stanley has ever behaved physically in this way before, this is a man who is under threat and so I guess that’s one of the interesting things that we need to interrogate, whether domestic abuse has happened in this environment before or whether it’s a new thing brought up by the flight or fight nature brought on by Blanche’s arrival.

I don’t know the answer to that … yet.

Yet!

And I guess that’s a decision the audience gets to make as well.

Cock opens on Friday and you can book tickets here. A Streetcar Named Desire opens August 24 and you can book tickets here.


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