Cock – Review

Cock. Images The Other Richard.

It’s been nine years since Mike Bartlett proudly premiered his provocative Cock at the Royal Court and who’d have guessed that its subject matter – sexual confusion – would not only still be relevant but determinedly rampant?

Cock has been revived by Chichester Festival Theatre and what a refreshing, provocative and combative production it is. Everything about it screams modern, avant-garde and experimental and, boy, does it work.

Young director Kate Hewitt has swept into Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and reconfigured it so that the play can be staged in-the-round – and the space works so much better.

Bartlett’s inspiration came after watching cock fights and bullfights in Mexico so there is no set or props, just an “arena,” defined by red tape on the floor, and the loosely defined scenes are rung in by a bell.

The theatre’s production team have been busy painting the auditorium red, and even the ushers have been kitted out in red sweatshirts, for make no mistake Cock is brutal and very bloody – metaphorically speaking.

The cast of four don’t mime actions in the script and gestures are stripped back to the bare minimum.

This is initially odd, especially when John asks his boyfriend to strip off and then fantasises over his body – while we see a fully dressed Matthew Needham standing there motionless.

Later we’re treated to a quite erotic moment between Luke Thallon’s John and his “blip” girlfriend (Harry Potter’s Isabella Laughland) which is just played out with speech. Pretty steamy it is too – almost a repeat of When Harry Met Sally but without the climax.

Back in 2009 Cock may have seemed quite shocking – even for the edgy and experimental Royal Court – but times have changed.

Nowadays sexual fluidity is such that it’s impossible to pigeonhole anyone, certainly not by gender or proclivity. Back then Bartlett almost kept things simple by limiting the choice of the confused and indecisive John.

Each scene sees the combatants in the ring, usually squaring up to each other, claws at the ready to inflict maximum damage.

It opens with John and his boyfriend bickering. John’s not sure that the relationship, frequently stormy, is working and wants out.

Later he begs to return and asks for advice about how to distance himself from a liaison he had in the interim with a woman.

The boyfriend, who isn’t given the courtesy of a name but simply called M in the programme (for Man, I assume) is inflamed. The sheer audacity leaves him at a loss to understand. John is gay, what on earth is he doing?

Needham (a big hit recently in the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke) is a superb actor who, I hope he doesn’t mind me saying, shares a similar acting style as Ben Whishaw (who played John in the original production).

They’re both electrifying to watch. Here Needham’s eyes flash with hurt and he’s trembling with rage, insecurity and desperation. He prowls around the stage with furious indignation.

He bitches and accuses, incredulous that the man he has loved for seven years, has inexplicably found himself in a relationship with a woman. He’s horrified and feels betrayed.

John tries to play it down. He describes W as mannish and his boyfriend ridicules the love rival, demanding John invites her for dinner so that they can be rid of her once and for all.

But John isn’t being entirely honest. The truth is he quite liked sex with a woman and the realisation has thrown his entire world off kilter.

At an uncomfortable dinner, attended by M’s father (Simon Chandler’s protective, proactive, affectionate F) the four of them thrash out the problem.

“I will always be here for you,” F tells his frantic son. “But you won’t be dad! You’ll die!”

“Well, you’ve got me for tonight,” he says.

Bartlett’s dialogue is heartfelt, sincere and very witty with Needham unleashing one tirade after another while John is frustrated that he is incapable of speaking.

“We need to work out what you are,” the father tells John who is struggling to identify if he’s gay, straight or bisexual.

The girlfriend wants John to move in with her, have a life together, kids, a regular, straight family.

But making the decision is tearing John apart.

Luke Thallon is heard-wrenching and, equally, riveting to watch, a pent-up maelstrom of emotion. He doesn’t know which way to turn and you’re on the edge of your seat during this 95 minute production, wondering at the outcome.

Laughland is quietly demanding as the girlfriend, determined that John will choose a straight path with her. She’s bold and fearless when confronted by both John’s lover and his father, intent on holding onto her man.

And the always watchable Simon Chandler, makes an impact as the father who, after coming to terms with his only son’s sexuality, now wants the best for him.

I was enthralled by this fiery revival which may have lost its initial shock value in the intervening, increasingly liberated, years, but is still capable of being moving, comical and daring thanks to Bartlett’s blistering dialogue.

Visceral, electrifying and still provocative, Cock, is a powerful social commentary for our time. Stupendous.

Cock plays at the Minerva Theatre until October 27.

Cock
  • Cock
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Summary

Visceral, electrifying and still provocative, Mike Bartlett’s play about sexual fluidity, Cock, is a powerful social commentary for our time.

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