I’m sure that some have sat down to watch this one-man show under the assumption that the title is merely figurative. After all, phrases like ‘men are pigs’ and ‘going at it like rabbits’, which figure in our everyday speech indicate clearly the connections we continue to make between our own sexual desires and those of animals. But the show is exactly as described in the title. It’s no surprise that some have been shocked – director Katharine Armitage recalls a night in Edinburgh where a third of the audience walked out – but there was no visible outrage in the BT studio.
The play is set for the most part in Bobby’s (played by Linus Karp) room, with the BT’s studio rendered stifling by the invisible walls imposed either side of the rumpled bed which becomes the centrepiece of Bobby’s interactions. There seems to be a proportional relationship through which Bobby’s proximity to the bed and to sex itself coaxes his eagerness closer to confidence. When he leaves the bed and is forced to confront the reality of offering his guest cat food, or an exit out of the window, that confidence wanes. Karp plays these moments beautifully, releasing himself and the audience from an involuntary engrossment in the charade that these animals might provide more than a night of companionship.
The most painful reality for Bobby is that they will never talk back, yet there’s a constant tension that a goat may really manifest before us. This is due in part to the script itself, which Armitage describes as a series not of monologues but of “failed conversations” and to Karp’s strong sense of the animals as real figures on the stage. Bobby’s belief that a dog might speak is as foolish as my own nervy expectation that the same dog might appear on the pillow.
Karp is a method actor who envisions the animals as people. I find the play most unsettling when the interactions veer closest to being human and to human acts of consent and coercion. Animals cannot give consent. Bobby’s awkward suggestions of shared business ventures or running away to the wilderness together made my skin crawl – proposed with earnestness but full of desperation and uncomfortably familiar in their assertion of the extension of a consent not given.
Despite this, Bobby is far from contemptible. He is saved from the audience’s disgust by his self-deprecation, his quiet revealing of a painful past, his tentative jokes. His honesty. His loneliness. The choices he makes because of his solitude are atypical but the emotions that propel them are easily recognised.
On his Crowd-funder page Karp writes that amidst “Brexit chaos and a continued struggle over LGBTQIA+ rights, this production puts a queer European centre-stage for our audiences”. I ask him if the show has been popular with queer audiences. It has, and Karp highlights father figure relationships as a prevalent issue in the queer community, which is explored in the play, as well as citing queer audiences as often being open-minded enough to take a chance on the production. There is no equation between queer sex and sex with animals, but the queer experience is often recognised.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Bobby cannot keep his passion under control: he leaves a private book at his workplace after storming out and suggests that his computer will likely be taken by the police. The sirens outside his window blare louder and louder. In these moments of intrusion, the simplicity and scale of the set is most effective as our perception of Bobby’s room as an impenetrable space that exists outside of human laws is fractured. In the final scene, Bobby speaks to an animal which stands in the centre of the audience. The script lagged slightly here, losing some of its tension through a somewhat lost sense of direction. Still, without an imaginary space to focus on as the target of Bobby’s anxious affection, I found the intimacy of the one-sided conversation almost unbearable.
In an interview with the Guardian, Rob Hayes, the author commented “You’re always going to lose people, and I think I’ve lost quite a few friends over this play, but I’m at peace with that”. After the show, I ask Karp and Armitage if have lost any friends over the subject matter. The answer is no. Karp tells me that a typical question to be asked is ‘Why bestiality?’ It seems to me that that is a question of lesser interest. The play is not really about animals.