Have you ever suddenly seethed with anger when you find someone at work has “borrowed” your chair, or dumped their untidy pile of paper on your desk? Been irritated at the competitive boasting in the workplace on Mondays of what people did at weekends? In that case you will easily recognise the characters and situations found in the Farm’s Cockfight, now touring the UK.
Here, in a generic modern office setting, two performers vie for dominance over the desk, the filing cabinet, the phone and the whiteboard, in a battle which turns increasingly violent and physical. It can also be very funny. Bodies slam into walls and furniture is overturned in a tightly choreographed work where the visceral loathing of the protagonists is mixed with a curious interdependence. They need to have each other to fight.
Cockfight comes to us from Australia, where it was developed by The Farm in partnership with guest artist Julian Louis. The artistic direction of the company is by Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber, who is one of the performers here. Cockfight is a conflict between the older alpha male (Webber, aged 50) and the young upstart Joshua Thomson (aged 33). Webber is the taller one, keen to point out Thomson’s lack of inches at every opportunity.
The devisers of the work have a keen eye and ear for the inanities of corporate management-speak and the way that bruising encounters can sometimes be punctuated by faux bonhomie. After a violent tussle, there can be jovial backslapping, or a cheery cry of “Coffee?”. When the older performer, comfortably ensconced at the desk, bids the younger one to enter, he pretends to be on the phone and says, “take a seat”. But there are no seats there, other than his.
It seems right that the sheets of paper on the desk or in the filing cabinet are all blank: it doesn’t matter what they might say after all, because the only thing that matters is the power struggle. The sharpness of the observation makes this a wickedly funny piece. The roots in real frustrations and resentments are strong. No, people don’t go around in offices trying to stab each other with the radio aerial, but we can recognise the urge and the fantasy of it bubbles away in our imagination.
Animal references abound in the conflict. At one-point Thomson leaps on top of the filing cabinet and whoops like a baboon. There’s also a neat confrontation where upturned chairs on the performers’ heads function as antlers as they charge at each other like stags rutting. The older performer advances theories about the superior wingspan of older, bigger birds. There is a good deal of talk, but it is still the physical side of the performance that prevails.
There are slow motion sections which give us intricate duets, with complex lifts and transfers of weight, bodies winding around, under and over each other or any available furniture. These manage to imply an interdependence as well as a struggle, a need for each other which the spoken word never acknowledges. The conflict gets alarmingly physical as bodies slam against walls, desks are overturned, the room ransacked for weapons, a section of the wall torn down. You can’t help but wince and wonder what their bruises must be like.
The struggle to unseat the alpha male must always ultimately end in his defeat by time as much as by his opponent. Webber isn’t going quietly though, and the fortunes of battle waver to and for. Eventually he is worn down and can’t compete with the formidable energy and athleticism displayed by the younger man, loath though he is to submit Yet even in the moment of victory there is a knock on the door as the next challenger is waiting to come in.
There were plenty of audience giggles on the way, and a rapturous response from them at the end. The work is nicely judged at a brisk 70 minutes or so, with no longueurs. Any longer and the protagonists might actually kill one another.
The production continues to tour the UK through the rest of October and is definitely worth a visit if you have ever toiled or are still toiling in the corporate salt mines. Probably best not to take the boss along though.