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Brighton Festival 2011

Cow Piece/Cheap Lecture

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion

Genre: Poetry-Based Theatre


The Basement


Low Down

A rhythmic spoken performance set to music and a chaotic meditation on dance, music and mortality from a choreographer and a musician whose work may test the theatre audience’s patience


Half way into Cheap Lecture, a rhythmic spoken performance set to music, Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion list some of the things in life with the capacity to push an audience back in their seats: baroque churches, a Pina Bausch performance, anything involving explosions. Their own highly conceptual performances are more likely to have you craning forward or slumping to the side, and they know this full well. ‘We’d make work like Pina Bausch if we could’ one of them says, ‘but this is what we’re good at.’ At the heart of their work is the interesting proposition, also expressed here, that the artist has no choice in the sort of work he or she makes.

So there’s an apologetic tenor built into both these pieces, and several calculated gestures of contrition, that can irritate as much as they ingratiate. ‘Maximum strength, best we can’ ran one refrain in Cheap Lecture, in which the pair also expressed sympathy for past audience members who haven’t connected with their work: ‘We’re sorry it must have been awful / the way time passed so slowly.’

So what’s not to apologise for in charging people £15 to watch two visually unremarkable guys in jeans reading halting meta-observations from musical scripts (or should that be word scores?) in time to a blandly looping piano refrain? Or, in the case of Cow Piece, messing about with 12 miniature plastic cows on a desk?

Well, for a head start you’d want to know that the late Pina Bausch was a radical German choreographer, to be able to recognize the patterns of morris dancing and cockney jerks of music hall, and to have some admiration for the work and bonkers logic of John Cage, whose Lecture on Nothing and Cheap Imitation influenced the ideas and determine the very rhythm of Cheap Lecture.

But even the uninitiated could appreciate the sense of ritual in Cow Piece, as Fargion intoned the cows names in Italian, evoking the sonorously incoherent flow of a Latin Mass or a cattle auctioneer, before each was variously dispatched to its death. Meanwhile the script to Cheap Lecture integrated its own user guide, snatches of which also appeared on a screen at the back. Let it wash over you, we were told. Find meaning in the gaps between thoughts and words.

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion are a choreographer and a musician respectively, and the type of watching and listening their work demands may come less naturally to a theatre audience. And yet what Cow Piece reminded me of most powerfully was watching a child play – the intense concentration on orchestrating absurd scenarios and generating random clamour, the impenetrable internal logic.

Probably best, then, to appreciate this double-bill in the sense of Cage’s concept of music as purposeless play – not ‘an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation’ but simply ‘an affirmation of life’. With one important footnote of course – that play is always infinitely more fun to participate in than to watch.



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