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Is what British politicians say a load of 'cock and bull'? That's what this show wants to find out...

Artist Nic Green created the show Cock and Bull before Brexit – but the work, which takes apart the words of politicians, is just as pertinent now.

Theresa May visit to Grimsby

I just think you can say ‘strong and stable government’ as much as you want, but it doesn’t make it true.

Cock and Bull Image 3

TO LISTEN TO a politician make a speech can sometimes be an exercise in trying to find a needle in a haystack. The needle is the point, the haystack is a load of words.

Here in Ireland, we can certainly point to politicians who are fond of a bit of bluster. But there are others, too, whose gift with words (or often, their scriptwriter’s gift) marks them out as people who have a very good point to make.

Over in the UK, a lot of attention has been laser-focused on MPs in the wake of the Brexit vote. British Prime Minister Theresa May in particular has found herself making speeches that are sometimes dreary, often boring – never explosive, unless for the wrong reasons. 

Conservative words

In 2015, the award-winning British artist Nic Green found herself contemplating what politicians say, and how they say it.

Is it just a load of words that mean nothing?

She started recording these words, listening and then distilling them down, and eventually using them to create the theatre piece Cock and Bull. The work will be performed in Dublin as part of Live Collision this Saturday.

Nic Green headshot Nic Green Source: Oliver Rudkin

Cock and Bull was conceived for the eve of the 2015 UK General Election, but four years on it is just as pertinent. 

In the piece, three women convene to perform their own, alternative, party conference.  They use the words of politicians and respond to what’s described as “the meaninglessness and repetition of empty political promise, the privilege of the governmental elite and the deep discontent of an increasingly disproportionate and divided society”.

The work is part protest, part catharsis, and part exorcism, says its creator. 

That it is performed by three women, when politics across the globe is overwhelmingly male, adds another layer to it.

“It started when I was looking into the relationship between power and language,” Green tells TheJournal.ie of its genesis. She had initially started looking at how bankers talk about themselves, but then decided to go straight to the seat of power.

“I started looking at David Cameron and George Osborne and I ended up watching the 2014 Conservative Party Conference, all of the speeches back to back,” she says. “Which I had never done before – because why would anyone do it unless it was your job?”

A few things struck her. “They were all men of a certain age, white, of a certain class – most people coming from Oxbridge, Eton etc. And the other thing that struck me was the repetition between the speeches. These amazing ideas distilled into these slogans that become a shorthand for a policy. But I’m not totally convinced that anybody knows what those policies are.”

The piece came out of a quest to figure out how you can use your voice in the world. “Going, I just feel so bored of voting for things and them not getting through and the things I want to happen never happens,” she says.

Cock and Bull Image 1

“I guess that’s what we call democracy in our country but the margins are so slim and there are so many people who feel desperately unhappy with the situation,” says Green. “What do you do, how do you deal with it? How do you keep on trying to talk about it and find a way to use your voice? When we first started making this piece these were the questions we dealing with.”

She started collecting sentences, hitting on repeatedly used phrases. Green would then disassemble the sentences to see if she could find new meanings. “I just felt like there was really something about taking these words and altering them and repeating them into meaningless or exposing them,” she says.

While playing with repeated words, she’d notice how they’d sometimes sound like different words – if you say ‘people’ over and over it again, sometimes it sounds like ‘peephole’.

Dumbing down

Seeing the simplicity in the words made Green wonder about the ‘dumbing down’ of political speeches. “Maybe we’re really seeing the full effect of that now with Brexit and how that propaganda played out on the lead up to these really simplified ideas that are just not reality,” says Green.

She wonders if people can start to feel disaffected and disengaged from politics because of a dumbing down “into nothing – you can’t have a conversation about nothing”

“There’s nothing to talk about and maybe that’s why a lot of people don’t know who they should vote for or why,” she says. “I guess [the piece is] just trying to react to that in a way. Just expose it a little bit more.”

I just think you can say ‘strong and stable government’ as much as you want but it doesn’t make it true.

Green believes that people are even more averse to political spin than when Cock and Bull was first made.

“I think in a way it maybe feels more relevant,” she says. “[The piece is] not educational in the sense it tells you anything about these parties. Literally what it does is presents the words back again in another space, and re-forms them. It gives this other kind of space for you actually to have a moment to personally respond to that and emotionally respond to that.”

None of us really know how much stuff affects us, how much we’re influenced or swayed. I think it’s good to purge it a bit.

Though it’s one show in a sea of work, Green hopes that Cock and Bull is in its own way making a difference:

“In a really tiny way it’s just a little theatre show, but for us when you feel like you are not represented in the power that governs your land, it’s a tiny way to take some power back, or to access your own agency when you just feel like you can’t in a bigger picture.”

Cock and Bull will be performed on Saturday 27 April as part of the Live Collision art festival, which runs from 24-27 April at Project Arts Centre in Dublin. 7pm and tickets are €16, suitable for ages 16+. Tickets for all events can be bought from the Project Arts or Collision websites.

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