Cockfight, about to tour the UK, is a cross between David Brent’s The Office and a cage-fight… Australian style. Diane Parkes’ talks to Gavin Webber & Joshua Thomson about creating and performing in such an extreme piece of physical theatre.
When Australian dance and physical theatre duo Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson were creating their new work about male rivalry they found inspiration in the UK – from the hit television series The Office.
The Ricky Gervais comedy in which character David Brent is everyone’s worst nightmare of a boss gave them the perfect setting to play out their piece. Focusing on the conflict between two men, one older and one younger, their new production Cockfight takes place amid filing cabinets, desks, anglepoise lamps and desks.
Cockfight was prompted by the relationship between the two performers and reflections on the difference between their ages – Gavin is 50 and Joshua 33. When they began exploring intergenerational relationships and the conflict which can arise, an office provided the background they needed – and Brent the ideal role model.
“We’d both seen The Office and it’s awesome,” says Joshua. “We loved it – especially that dry humour, that really awkward humour – there’s a lot of that in what we do. Watching The Office was like watching a car crash. When I first watched it I couldn’t believe it. Making a character as unlikeable as David Brent is not an easy thing to do – it made you so uncomfortable but you just had to keep watching it.
“It was a very special show and was in our hearts so we knew there was a little homage to it in this show. I feel like British and Australian humour are very similar but there are some differences so it will be interesting to see the reaction to our piece in the UK.”
The narrow confines of an office and how that impacts on relationships provides an arena for the men’s battles.
“An office felt like the right place for our show to start,” says Joshua. “We spoke about a place for the audience to land and then depart from – somewhere they recognised and the office was that place. Power shifts in offices can be so clearly read.
“We did have a lot of discussion at the beginning about us putting it in an office setting because we don’t work in offices and as performers we don’t want to pretend that we are something that we aren’t. So what matters is that it starts in the office but quickly moves beyond that.”
And Gavin explains how the workplace sets the scene but it’s the relationship between the two men which is at the heart of Cockfight.
“The office is a metaphor really because it’s not a real office in which we have real jobs. We did try to create jobs for ourselves but then in the end we decided there were no jobs for us! In the end we are Josh and Gavin on stage performing and that is something we were always conscious of.”
And Gavin says humour, even uncomfortable humour, is an integral element of the production.
“The show is quite emotional in a lot of ways for people to watch. And there’s not always a divide – you can be watching something and finding it very funny while at the same time you are grimacing at the horror of it. Often laughter is a nice way to open a response up in an audience so playing with that edge of humour is something we have been fascinated with.”
Gavin and Joshua’s dance collaboration goes back to 2003 when Gavin, then director of Australian company Dancenorth, visited Queensland University of Technology – where Joshua was a student. Joshua went on to become an ensemble artist with Dancenorth and the two men have worked together on different projects since then.
Cockfight was co-created and co-directed by Kate Harman and Julian Louis and came out of a series of improvisation sessions. It was created for The Farm, an international network of artists based on Australia’s Gold Coast and led by Gavin along with Grayson Millwood.
First performed in Australia, Cockfight tours the UK in October with performances in London, Chester, Canterbury, Poole, Doncaster, Oxford, Nottingham and Ipswich. The British dates are presented by Dance Touring Partnership – the network of theatres that brings new and interesting work to audiences across the country.
Cockfight is a special project for both Gavin and Joshua as it puts their long-standing friendship centre stage. “We were travelling in a combi van on the way to Melbourne when Kate said Gavin and I should do a show together,” says Joshua. “She has worked with us for a long time and saw the way we work together and she thought that we have such a strong trust that it would be really special to isolate that and put in on stage.”
And from that initial thought process, Kate, Julian, Gavin and Joshua started creating some improvised dance pieces and became interested in the idea of intergenerational conflict.
“We quickly realised that what we wanted to explore was the idea of the age gap and of passing of knowledge from one generation to the other and when that knowledge is ready to be heard,” says Joshua. “And we wanted to look at the difference between when you’re older and you’ve developed mentally but you maybe don’t have the physicality any more or when you’re younger and your body is at the peak of physicality but you’ve not had the mind-training and the experience.”
As well as The Office, the team also brought in influences from other sources.
Gavin explains: “One of the stories we looked at was the Greek legend of Icarus. Everyone knows the story of Icarus who flies too close to the sun but what they don’t know is that after Icarus dies, his father Daedalus moves to an island and becomes famous as a great inventor. He has a nephew who also becomes an inventor and in fact becomes a better inventor – and Daedalus ends up pushing him off a cliff!
“There was this idea that as you get older within relationships there’s a sense of do you allow the next generation to have power or do you fight them? And the counterpoint to that is the idea of taking power and knowing that as soon as you do that you can see what it will do to that older person so there’s responsibility but also ruthlessness in that.
“We were also inspired by the film-maker David Lynch. In the show there’s an idea of abstract coming out of banal ideas which is a very Lynchian idea. The office is an ordinary place, the most banal setting, but in the world of physical theatre and dance theatre that we work in, dance as a language tells you bigger and more unconscious and abstract stories so launching it from such a banal place as an office gives space for the stories to blossom out of that.”
With Cockfight featuring a series of slow-motion fight sequences and some extreme physical theatre, both men depend on each other to ensure not just emotional intensity but also their own safety.
“Underneath all this combative material is actually our trust and our friendship and the audience feel that,” adds Gavin. “We put ourselves very much on the line with this show and people can see that we give everything to it.”