A Bittersweet Mouthful [by Matt Baker]
Cowboy Mouth was once described as co-writer Sam Shephard’s ‘most thinly-veiled autobiography.’ However, his resultant abandonment of the production prior to the second night’s performance (he starred alongside his co-writer and lover at the time, Patti Smith) indicates that perhaps the piece was less of a thin veil, and more of a deluge of emotionally packed stream of conscious writing that hit Shephard too close to home during performance. Regardless, the content of the play, which is more of an extended beatnik poem, is undoubtedly honest and quite simply about a relationship between a man and woman, Slim (Ash Jones) and Cavale (Josephine Stewart) respectively.
Stewart’s commitment to her role is reflected in body, voice, and soul. Even in the opening moments of the play, there was a crow-like look to her that I had never before seen. She writhes, leaps, sinks, spasms, and calms with every inch of her body, and finds great range in her vocals. This conviction is almost sad to witness when one recognises its driving force: that of the unconditional love Cavale/Smith has for Slim/Shephard, the bitter sweetness of giving someone who has nothing, everything.
That is not to say Jones himself has nothing to give. It is nigh impossible not to see the similarity between Jones’ Slim and Hunter S. Thompson as portrayed by both Johnny Depp and Bill Murray. In saying that, however, Jones embodies these traits and by making them his own avoids any sense of awkward or gaudy mimicry. There are two fundamentally reflective moments in the script for Slim, and while Jones found a nice dichotomy of clarity in the second case, the first felt rushed into and not quite achieved. This could, however, simply be put down to Jones’ age, and a missing link between the actor and character – leaving one’s wife and child is an aging event.
Director Nisha Madhan identifies the torrents of dialogue and marks out a strong narrative structure to the play, which the actors’ diligently process, shaping the text into scenes with a timelessness that suits the characters’ mental and emotional states, which could equally represent one hour or several days. There is also an established element of domesticity between the characters, which complements the (in)compatibility of their extremities. Accents are spot on, although the point in which both actors reverted to their native New Zealand was jarring, I appreciated the sentiment and sense of honest nostalgia it created.
Traditionally an art gallery, The Snake Pit on High Street has a wonderfully open space in which the play takes action. The set, designed by Lara Fischel-Chisholm, dutifully respects the list specified in Shephard’s text, and both actors make full use of the space in a play that has a large amount of inarguably necessary physicality.
As with the original production in 1971, Cowboy Mouth is presented as part of a double bill – albeit with an entirely original piece. Love It Up, starring Stewart and Jones, as well as Fischel-Chrisholm and Josh Rutter (who also stars as The Lobster Man in Cowboy Mouth), acts as an epilogue and brings the double bill production full circle very nicely. The piece both begins and ends with a broken fourth wall reflection on the events surrounding the play just been from the performers’ perspective (endearingly so from Rutter), including a classic actor’s nightmare. The purpose of the ‘orbital’ in-between was lost on me, but nonetheless made for an entertaining sequence – with some surprisingly simple and fun audience participation. The cast is accompanied by Hermione Johnson on piano, and lighting and sound designer/operator Stephen Bain toils away through both pieces. Occasionally, I found myself watching Bain, and found his contribution to the play both focused and calming to observe.
Cowboy Mouth is not necessarily my drug of choice, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to both theatregoers in general and patrons of art/music/punk-rock culture. While the opening night crowd was generally youthful (with a touch of bohemian aestheticism), I would love to see the reaction of the generation now to whom the play was first performed. It is not traditional theatre, but, with this team of traditionally trained artists, it gives experimental theatre a strong and justified foothold.
Cowboy Mouth is produced by The Town Centre and is playing at The Snake Pit (33 High Street) until 16th September at 8pm each night. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for bookings.