Theatre

Cock @ Royal Court, London



cast list
Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott, Paul Jesson, Katherine Parkinson

directed by
James Macdonald
Let’s step around that title for a moment for Mike Bartletts latest play is a far more interesting and rich thing than such a blunt, needlessly provocative moniker might indicate.

Cock is about identity, sexual and otherwise. John has been in a relationship with his boyfriend since he was in his early twenties; now he feels they have grown apart or, rather, that he has grown and their relationship hasnt really allowed for this fact.

After he breaks things off with his boyfriend he finds himself in an unusual and unexpected situation: he finds himself attracted to a woman.
They have sex – an unplanned, sudden and awkward encounter – yet neither wants to let things end there. Though John has never been with a woman before they feel a powerful connection and believe what happened between them was more than a one-night liaison, they believe that potentially it could grow into something strong and lasting.

Though he has real feelings for this woman, John is still closely emotionally linked to his boyfriend; they were once in love and, while that has changed, the attraction between them remains strong they are still bound together in many ways. John must make a choice between the two people vying for his affections. This is not something he finds easy; he is drawn to both of them, for different reasons, and in making a choice it is as if he is been asked to define himself, not just sexually, but on many levels. Who is he? What does he want out of life? Marriage, kids, trips to Paris and security in old age with her or a different but no less rewarding existence with him?

He is pulled from both sides and the more they pull, the more he vacillates; he is frozen, silenced and simply unable to make the choice that, it is made clear, will steer his life in one direction or the other. There is no middle option, a decision is called for and sexuality is only a part of the picture; John is being asked to decide the whole future path of his life. This all comes to a head (so to speak) in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene when John invites the woman to his boyfriends house and a kind of tug of war ensues with John in the middle and the roast beef growing cold on the table.

As specified in the text, James Macdonalds production is incredibly stripped down. There are no props, no costumes and no conventional set. Events play out on Miriam Beuther’s circular stage with the audience seated on raked wooden benches around the edges; this whole set up resembles an old-fashioned operating theatre, apt as emotional pain and physical intimacy are both central to the whole production. Macdonald pays particular attention to the distances between the characters. When John has his first sexual encounter with a woman, the pair remain fully clothed, standing apart and slowly circling one another, coming closer and closer together, as if dancing; its a scene that is comic and erotic and potent all at the same time and allows this pivotal sexual experience to be viewed and dissected in a way that may not otherwise have been possible.

John, played by the wiry, if somewhat weak-voiced Ben Whishaw, is the only character to merit a name. The remaining characters are known only as M, W and F (Man, Woman and Father) and any mention of their names is scrupulously avoided. Yet the fact he has a name makes him no more solid as a character, if anything the opposite is true. At one point he remarks that he was proficient at imitating voices as a child and that sometimes he struggled to return to his own voice, to become himself again. The question of whom John is – this quest for self-definition on which the play hangs – is a self-eating one, for John seems to become less of himself, less than himself, as the play progresses.

The proximity of the audience to the performers and the precision of the staging provide a necessary emotional focus, a honing in, otherwise Johns dithering could well become insufferable even as it is, his near disabling indecision does start to become frustrating, to the point that you want to physically shake him. It helps a great deal that Bartletts play is very funny and that hes capable of seeing the comedy in the situation.

The performances also do a great deal to fill out the play, to add bulk and colour and humour to the words. Whishaw manages to be compelling in a role that requires him to be comparatively blank and, though shes saddled with some speeches that dont quite ring true, The IT Crowds Katherine Parkinson is superbly subtle and measured in her delivery; in the final dinner party scene its a delight to watch her attempts to keep a handle on her temper.

Good as they both are it is Andrew Scott, as Johns boyfriend, who really resonates. His character is charismatic and energetic yet conflicted in his feelings, prone to self pity and insecure enough to invite his dad to the pivotal dinner. He somehow manages to radiate affection for John as well as bafflement and revulsion at his behaviour and pain at the thought of losing him. Hes waspish and politely passively aggressive to Johns girlfriend, yet not completely hostile, and even appears to show a glimmer of sympathy for her predicament. Its a nuanced performance that seems completely in sync with everything that Bartletts play is trying to – and, for the most part – does achieve.



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