[Review:] SAD ABOUT THE COWS, Tristan Bates Theatre, London.
Amongst the widespread concerns of the environmentalists, anthropologists and proclaimers of the Anthropocene, there is one member whose voice is less audible and promoted: the voice of the solipsist, the individual. Sad About the Cows, written by Michelle Payne, provides an often neglected perspective of the self, the effects upon the singular individual, as opposed to the common collective, of drowning in an ocean of sociopolitical and ecological concerns.
This one-woman show is fiery and impassioning, but backhandedly so. It reveals the common contemporary struggles of fitting in, doing one's bit, striving for popularity and aiming for capitalist success. Its content is hence fresh and relatable. It follows the diets and jobs of celebrity-obsessed Rachel, played by Payne herself, revealing the dark truths of starving, fainting, vomiting and waking up prematurely in the middle of the night, all in order to be healthy, attractive and slim in a world demanding airbrushed beauty.
There were a few particularities in this writing, however, that stood out sorely. For instance, a lot of the speech was slightly more descriptive rather than demonstrative at many times. When referring to past experiences and events or interests and opinions, description was sufficient; however, in moments where, for example, Rachel is choosing what clothes to wear, a simple shift from 'I put on a t-shirt dress' to 'I put on this one' could have solved this problem. As it stood, this made for an incoherency of setting. Why such an elaborate bedroom/kitchen if Rachel does not exist in this space but flurries between locations? Perhaps a larger faux pas, however, was the sudden ending. After building such a rapport with Rachel and following her story throughout, it felt as though we were quite cheated by a small description of how everything has changed just before the play ends. This ending was much too sudden and felt inconclusive and underdeveloped.
Payne was sure of her text, even if she stumbled over a few lines here and there, and this confidence came through in her characterisation. Rachel’s free spirit, energy and joy were definitely captured in Payne’s physicality, and it was very easy to feel connected with this character. I enjoyed that Payne stayed away from assuming different personae when explaining the characters of Laurence, Anna or her boyfriend. It made the descriptions far more personal, as though we were seeing the events through Rachel’s eyes and not through the simple, transformative eyes of a talented actress.
From time to time, Payne was somewhat mechanical, however, in her progression from one topic to another, aided by a small pensive pause and a return to face the audience. An example of how severe this became is in the first kitchen scene where she faces the wall to read her weekly food plan, turns around to face the audience to tell them what it says, then turns back to read it, etc. I would advise a reconsideration of the naturalism in this performance, as the manner of speaking and moving was far from naturalistic. In this instance, naturalism could be simply remedied by standing on the other side of the table, facing the audience. This would enable a subtle head turn, rather than an energised turn of the entire body, to get the message across.
The set was jam-packed with pieces and props, making for a really intricate and evocative world for the play. As it grows messier and messier, it becomes an effective emulation of Rachel's obsessive and disorderly mindset. However, the distinctiveness of this set meant that it would be difficult to imagine location changes, and that these would rely heavily on tech. Whilst, for the most part, this was achieved efficiently through changes of lighting states, perhaps music could have been used in certain scenes such as when Rachel talks about the nightclub, Liquids. It was, however, efficacious to not do this when Rachel spoke of different locations, walking over her bed to mimic supermodels on a runway, for example, as this captured well her imaginations and yearnings.
As for tech, lighting (operated by Rouxi Jia) was very impressive. The sheer amount of cues were well executed, gave a sense of location change and directed focus very well. Perhaps a little superfluous in some scenes, but I was particularly drawn to a lighting sequence towards the end of the play where a series of small washes illuminate the various parts of the stage in Rachel's absence. I felt this was a successful method to intensify the life Rachel has made for herself, how she has ended up, what she has become, etc., in forcing us to concentrate on the sheer clutter of untouched fruit and discarded clothes.
Music (sound designed and operated by Rouxi Jia) was rather hit-and-miss to begin with, fading out much too abruptly and making for a snappy and disconnected overture. This should have either faded slowly or should have been turned off by Rachel in the same (effective) way that it was turned on. A theme of pop music gave a modern and energetic texture to the performance, but this was disturbed with the soundscapes that started after Rachel revealed her breakup. Her own voice, demanding her to be pretty on a loop, felt corny and unoriginal but also incongruous with the rest of the performance which offered solely monologues and a singular perspective. A trip into Rachel's mind felt unnecessary and over-complicated, not to mention the mixing was rather unrefined, echoic and hampered.
Likewise, there were a few other problems with style continuity. Payne's writing offered a realistic direct address for the entire performance until the end where she offered a moment of poetry, her physicality becoming almost stylistic to accommodate this. This was inconsistent and summoned a contemporary style of poetry that did not belong in this performance. The rhythm, focus and visual aspect of this were, again, unnecessary and incongruous. Much like the voiceovers, a new, short-lived texture is added abruptly and conspicuously, taking us out of the performance and into a different realm of dramatic expression.
As a last note, too much attention was drawn to her fainting. They became theatrical displays of slow light changes and dramatic music. Her collapses were often followed by completely different scenes on different days where she now seems absolutely unaffected. To draw so much attention to these syncopes and then to abandon them simply felt too intense, and this dramatic quality replaced the raw reality of the scene. It would have been better to start this intensification just before she faints and to blackout once she is on the floor. Thus, these moments would have felt more like little nuggets of something ominous to come, a foreshadowing of her physical decline, rather than self-contained, finalised scenelets.