The Cows Come Home @ Camden People’s Theatre, London

directed by
Zachary Dunbar

choreographed by
Jess Rubio Gamo
More highly textured and with a broader range of reference than his previous essay on the human/bovine condition, Delphi, Texas, and reinforced by a stirringly athletic and evocative choreography, this new production by Zach Dunbar challenges the shared cultural memory of everyone in the audience as well as setting individuals off on their personal paths.

The Cows Come Home is about suffering. The physical and mental suffering caused by the Jacksonian seizures suffered by the cows/humans to the more oblique suffering that is part of human existence.

The printed programme, the audio-visual presentation in the lobby, and the projections, audio and visual, during the performance all tell the same story, which bears brief repetition: ‘A farmer grows up believing that his God-given destiny is to work miracles with his cattle. Midway in life a riddling disease strikes his cattle. He discovers his own hands fed them the tainted feed and, worse still, that he too is infected.’

So, we are in the realm of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or ‘Mad Cow Disease’) except that we are also in America, where cattlemen swear they don’t have diseased stock and possibly vCJD, the rare human variant of BSE. Here and there during the performance the voice-over churns out pieces of wisdom, such as, ‘You can’t tell who’s infected till they die.’ And prominent in the soundscape we hear Amazing Grace

We are also in the realm of symbol, ritual, and myth. The performance opens with a Tiresias-like figure inscribing shapes on the floor with a wet mop and disinfectant (the first challenge to the senses), demarcating the ‘stage’ from the audience critical for the suspension of common sense and then painting squares, a device suggestive of ritual madness. This ‘attendant’ (who is none other than the choreographer) drags a straight leg across the performing space, an impairment reminiscent of that of Tiresias, who was blind but could see, or of Oedipus, who blinded himself and, for the choreographer, a gentle joke that takes its place among many others equally of the gravedigger sort.

The other five performers, already on set when the audience are admitted, are frozen in a passionless gaze into light (the future?). When they start to move we see that each is outfitted with a prop, significant of some aspect of the world they (and we) inhabit.

The narrative properly begins when the attendant asks one of the performers: ‘Where is your pain?’ The others then begin to check over their own bodies, searching for some clue about the growing pain within the fate that is overtaking them. The performers are cows who are like humans who are like cows and the performance is divided into rough scenes by the recurring motif of cattle being transported.

The performers are among the most highly disciplined I have ever seen. Their choreography is testing in the extreme. It is frenetic, animal, at times meltingly affecting, and always technically demanding. It is also grounded in observation of the effects of BSE, the kind of electrical storm in the brain that turns it to sponge and leads to a rapid and irreversible collapse of the sensory, motor, and cognitive functions. The dance movements are reinforced by the many-layered soundscape, often accompanied by grating static the electrical storm.

By the time the lightbulb pops and the illusion is destroyed, Zach Dunbar and Jess Rubio Gamo have served up a multi-layered, deeply compelling but also meditative work of experimental theatre. Nothing prepares you for this spectacle, an amalgam of myth, physicality, compulsive behaviour and ritualism. It demands reflection, not on death human or bovine but on the quality of life, or the necessity of suffering.

The Cows Come Home is at the Camden People’s Theatre until 11 May and then moves to (appropriately) The Udder Place, Brighton, from 12-13 May 2008.

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