Cock

By Mike Bartlett

Reviews

    Barry Purchese      Ian Amos      Simon Jenner  

 

Review by Barry Purchese

Two men circle each other. John (Lewis Todhunter) is central to this drama, the only person given a name by writer Mike Barlett in his play COCK, the other three characters all being referred to only by initials.

He and his male lover M (Aaron Coomer) archly peck at one another, pushing each other away but never physically touching as the feathers fly.
They are on the verge of breaking up. John has a new lover. Bad enough in itself but what really stuns M is that it is a woman. Someone without a penis. He lashes out in his confusion, “So you've gone exploring in her marshland?”, but for all his waspishness it is clear that the apparently louche John is the one in control of this relationship.

The woman, W (Melissa Paris), is a combination of horniness and intelligence. Strongly attracted to John but not completely blind to his shallowness she describes him as a picture drawn with a pencil and not yet coloured in. Nevertheless it is she who suggests they have sex and when this happens for the first time it is both comedic and sensuous as they gaze in awe and surprise at his arousal.

John now feels that he has a choice to make. M proposes a dinner party for the three of them, anxious to see who he might be losing out to. John has falsely told him that W is not attractive and actually looks quite manly. When W learns of this she wryly asks John if he wants her to strap her tits down and wear a moustache. She does, however, reluctantly agree to go.

Both W and M are stronger than John in as much as they are desperate not to lose him but are prepared to let him go rather than share him. John is too weak to make a decision and reels them back in by leading them both to believe that he is going to ditch the other one at the dinner. The stage is thus set for the meeting. Except that it isn't. There is no set, no furniture, props, plates, glasses...nothing. Just the characters and our focus never strays from them.

Just a glance at W is enough to tell M that he has been lied to and that she is far from manly, but he is not going to give way easily, “I can be pretty feminine too.” The initial awkwardness is further compounded by the fact that M, seeking assistance in his attempt to cling onto the relationship, has asked his father, F (Graeme Muncer), to eat with them. John is appalled that a man he clearly regards as crass has been invited into such a sensitive situation, “He eats tinned food straight from the tin.”

Sure enough F blunders in. Well meaning, he has come to offer support but instead stirs up already choppy waters. Determined to show what he thinks is his open mindedness he argues in favour of his son's relationship with John, emphasising its durability and dismissing W as little more than an inexplicable sexual fling. She is having none of it and is quick to puncture his dated certainties, accusing him of ogling her and being “down here in the sexy dirt with the rest of us.”

The arena now seems to transform from a cockpit to become more like a boxing ring as the four contestants each retire to their respective corners and take turns to come out and trade blows, but this is not just an exchange of ideas and viewpoints. Although their characters may lack the identity of having actual names M, W and F are no mere ciphers but individuals who are made flesh by insightful performances from Aaron Coomer, Melissa Paris and Graeme Muncer. They are all first timers at the New Venture Theatre but under the direction of Richard Lindfield show themselves to be actors of experience and ability. Lewis Todhunter has appeared at the NVT before but it is difficult to believe that this is only his second ever show anywhere such is the assurance of his restless portrayal of the self absorbed, manic John at the heart of this drama.

A man of indecision and vanity he does who and whatever he likes at the time but it is hard not to feel for him and his unresolvable agony at genuinely not knowing who he is in a world so insistent on hanging labels on people. M, W and F demand that he define himself as either gay, straight or bi but it is a decision he cannot make. He wants them both and, anyway, why should he have to choose? His turmoil is plain as he tells them he's tired of imitating voices and can no longer remember which one is his.

His competing lovers are not impressed. “God, we must be stupid. What is it about you?” and we too wonder along with W what John's pull is on her and M. Nevertheless we remain absorbed as they fight it out in a contest which is not so much about being gay or hetero or the struggle to reject a fixed identity, but is, in the end, an old fashioned love triangle.

Barry Purchese

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Review by Ian Amos

 

Presented in the round, and black box bare, Richard Lindfield’s strong production of Mike Bartlett’s COCK kept his actors spinning right around the studio space, using every inch of it. He was graced with a quartet of confident actors; Aaron Coomer’s M was strong and strident, Melissa Paris’ W a well-rounded portrait of a young divorcee longing for love, and Graeme Muncer’s F, father to M, played Bartlett’s nice twist on the bigoted supportive parent with a lovely sense of timing and both humour and weight. But it is Lewis Todhunter’s John who is very much at the centre of the fight.

A weakness of COCK is that we almost never see M and John in their ‘loving’ state. What they have had. They allude to it but rarely demonstrate it. We meet them already in conflict with M firing off and it makes it less than easy to feel M’s love for John and to understand why he wants John back. John’s desires can have a cake-and-eat-it quality, but in his pained indecision to commit fully to M or W there is also something empathetic. Lewis Todhunter’s John exuded a puppy-dog attraction and sympathy, helping perhaps to explain why both M and W stick with this man as he sways sexually from side-to-side on top of the fence. It was in the scenes between John and W that the emotional heart of the play seemed to be, with both actors clearly enjoying showing their tentative first steps, then oozing some sexual chemistry, on to conflict and ending. It is this relationship that Bartlett draws most fully. All of this prepares the way for the awkward dinner party in the second half of the play when all four characters and the play’s arguments collide with both humour and pain. It was a joy to watch.

As the author requests, this was a very simple production which throws focus on to the little that is there. No sound. Lighting-wise, the use of fades (as opposed to snaps) to black at the end of scenes seemed to make them smudgy, when Bartlett had often provided a clear punch line ending. Fading the lights up after characters had begun to speak at the start of scenes was an interesting technique and gave the impression of us coming in on a conversation in progress.

The play maybe shows it age (it was premiered in 2009) in that it dramatizes John’s dilemma in terms of deciding whether he is straight, gay or bi? The discussion of sexual roles has to some extent moved on in the intervening ten plus years to a more fluid expression of sexual desire. Maybe a thruple could have been the solution to M, W and John’s dilemma in a 2022 rewriting (what would F have thought of that?)! But COCK remains a provocative play in both title and content and well worth revisiting.

Ian Amos

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Review by Simon Jenner

 

Anyone who saw the 2015 Young Vic revival of Mike Bartlett’s Bull will understand why he links Cock with it. Not just through verbal twinning, but a Mexican trip that resulted in both arriving very fast. Whilst the ninety-minute Cock from 2009 is emotionally far from the later, even shorter, altogether nastier cockfight, their aesthetic and feel’s closer than any other two Bartlett plays.

There’s indeed a kind of a bull-ring in Kate Hewitt’s Minerva Chichester revival designed by Georgia Lowe and lit by Guy Hoare in sudden red freezes, where simple red lines mark a diamond apex of confrontation: protagonists swerve near the horseshoe-arranged audience, more intimate even than normal in this space.

Giles Thomas’ sound is rightly minimal. Everything’s in the rhythms of words, the pulse of delivery, loss, intimacy, agonized procrastinations, stand-offs as each take their stand. Bartlett instructs minimal gestures, so passing the wine is purely verbal, sex isn’t touching but a brief low moan and it’s gone, not even five-second friction.

Cock explores Bartlett’s unique gift for stark dilemma that began with his first work Not Talking from 2005. Cock doesn’t possess some of the savage boxing-into concentric squares of Bull or for instance that other office nightmare, the no-way-out Contractions that came just before Cock; let alone King Charles III. Other plays like Earthquakes in London and more subtly last year’s Albion, show the trip-wires people create for themselves, rather than the system, or in the case of Earthquakes, ways to jump out.

Premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs with Katherine Parkinson, Ben Whishaw and Andrew Scott Cock has to sizzle with the kind of energy that space and those actors brought to it.

The prescience of this work in 2009 is less incredible than its timeliness now. As Bartlett points out ‘though we’ve moved on in some ways over the last decade… we seem to have stalled’. There’s still this either/or beating in social consciousness. Gender fluidity almost seems more normalised in theatre casting than our personal lives.

But more than anything else this isn’t about sex; it’s about love. John tries to express this in purely sexual terms. ‘I suppose I like both, but that’s okay isn’t it, that’s okay?’ In the final scene though it goes well beyond.

So after seven years from coming out at uni and with the same man – Matthew Needham’s M – Luke Thallon’s John meets Isabella Laughland’s divorcee classroom assistant W by chance whilst commuting. She’s tender, frank, lovingly accepting, they’re enthralled. She invites him back, knows it’s his first time with a woman. She’s twenty-eight, happy to use ‘he fucks me’ in company. It’s no accident John, the only named character, suggests another diminutive for cock.

We’re initially treated to a sequence with John and M as this relationship’s relayed to Needham’s appalled sense. First John’s broken with him, before W appears: there’s Needham’s dominant articulate broker M and the mildly infantilised John kicking against this. John’s vocality is muted, rises up to challenge only latterly. Then the same time-frame substituting W for M.

John and W’s first sex is sculpted with delicacy and gentleness – ‘gentle’s a key word John uses of W to her face in the differently climactic scene. W’s playing a long game. She denies she’s following him; John admits he can’t stop thinking of her. W’s trump (can we still use that word?) is that with M, feckless John’s always the child. With her he can grow to himself. Bartlett’s even-handed writing shows how M can stifle, how W’s doing something extraordinary with everything to gain, including children, perhaps a house-husband. M desperately rear-guards with everything to lose.

Thallon’s John havers in a wrenched face, as the sequencing alternates more freely till we’re at a beef and red wine dinner M’s expertly cooked to thrash it out. Typically John separately tells them both he’s decided for them alone.

The deal-breaker’s unexpected. Simon Chandler’s F: M’s widower father. No stereotype, he embraces his only child as gay, talks of the appalling ignorance in his own youth; declares love for John. He fights ferociously objectifying W. Even though W disarmingly points out he’s scanning her as if naked ‘looking at my tits… but that’s OK.’ This objectifying of W reaches its apogee as John expresses to the two men wondrously: ‘Her vagina is amazing.’ W’s unfazed.

After several reversals there’s – a cheesecake. That’s not the end. Did I say it was funny too? As John drains choice out of himself in a rictus of hesitation he’s asked to affirm a simple ‘yes’ to a mundane question: to enforce the chosen one’s dominance. Just here it’s unnervingly like Bull. You wonder if he’ll stay with his choice, as he quivers, as if to bolt.

The cast’s consummate. Needham’s desperate, articulate, assured mask is a crumble of desperate ploy and last-minute redoubts, sudden abjurations that reverse. Thallon’s ambivalence wobbles between boyishly withdrawn role-play and bursts of clear-headed rationale. Must he choose? Bartlett’s refusal to stack this either as home-wrecking, home-making or even baby-making leaves Thallon exposed not simply as immature: he’s someone genuinely able to desire both, though sexually coming down in favour of W. Hoare’s spotlighting at the end catches someone split apart.

Chandler’s clear-headed F just a beat behind the latest sexual politics veers between sweet liberalism and a faint misogynistic snarl undercut by an attraction W taunts him with. Laughland’s W though is both warm and faintly inscrutable. Her unabashed courage, her willingness to set everything aside, makes her worth rooting for too. A superb revival of Bartlett’s warmest, most ground-breaking, perhaps most enduring play so far.

Simon Jenner