Stage

Cock review (Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney)

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Cock, by British playwright Mike Bartlett, is an extraordinarily good play. To cut straight to the chase — it’s a gripping, original and expertly crafted relationship comedy about John (Michael Whalley), who has been in a seven-year-long relationship with his male partner (Matt Minto). There’s tension between the two as John comes to realise he’s no longer the person he was when they first got together, and despite the comfort and obvious affection between them, the relationship dynamics are broken.
John then meets a woman (Matilda Ridgway) who he unexpectedly falls for. Rather than infantilising John, like his male partner tends to, she sees and encourages his potential. But John simply can’t decide between the two of them, and when all three meet for a dinner (with a surprise guest), the play turns into a contemporary, almost Ayckbourn-esque battle for his affections.
The writing is constantly full of wit and insight into the four not-so-sympathetic characters Bartlett has created. There are scant social details about them (in fact, only John has a name; the male and female lovers are referred to as ‘M’ and ‘W’ in the script), but the detail with which Bartlett ploughs their emotional state and attitudes towards relationships is practically unparalleled in contemporary theatre.
It’s a stunning exploration of identity — never predominately about sexuality, but broader notions of how we define ourselves in reference to the relationships in our lives. John is having a typical third-life crisis when he realises he hasn’t made the transition into adulthood as smoothly or as independently as he wanted to. He simply can not make a decision because he’s entirely unsure of who he is — there’s one brilliant monologue about how he was embraced as “brave” when he first came out as “gay” and then dutifully fulfilled the social expectations which come with that label, even when they didn’t fit perfectly.
M says to John:

“What are you? Most peo­ple seem to come together pretty well, their atoms hold, and you can look at them and go oh, that’s my mate Steve, that’s the queen, but you, you don’t seem to have grown coherently

You’re a col­lec­tion of things that don’t amount

You’re a sprawl

A mob.

You don’t add up.”

The way John keeps his two lovers dangling is absolutely torturous, and without an actor with oodles of charisma in the central role, you either just want to punch him in the face or can’t believe his two lovers would stick around as he screws them around. Director Shane Bosher, who is relatively new to Australian audiences having only recently left a 13-year stint as artistic director of Auckland’s Silo Theatre, has succeeded absolutely in his casting. Michael Whalley brings to life the internal conflict John is facing brilliantly. He has that otherworldly character which W refers to — like a fine pencil drawing that hasn’t been coloured in properly — in his physicality and voice, which tends to mix and shift between accents and tones. It’s impossible to place.
Matilda Ridgway is also perfectly cast as W, the divorcee convinced John is exactly what she needs in her life, and convinced that she can be good for him as well. She brings her trademark mix of vulnerability and steely determination into play, and it’s heart-breaking to watch. Matt Minto is also strong as M and his frustrations with John and comedic timing are superb. He occasionally overplays his character’s mannerisms, but there’s a solid emotional base to his performance.
Due to illness, Brian Meegan has had to step into the production at the last minute to play M’s father, with less than two days’ notice. He’s still on script, but you can already see the glimmers of an excellent performance shining through, which is all that can be expected of him at this point. He already has the fatherly instincts down and, in a week or two, should be firing on all cylinders.
Last year, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite presented a production of this play which, on opening night, had an odd, stilted quality and tended to step over the natural rhythm of the dialogue. Bosher has stripped this production right back to a blank white space, around which he has placed chairs so it plays to an audience in the round. The challenges lying in the script are gargantuan for every actor — the emotional detail and nuance required is incredibly difficult to achieve (no wonder it’s now standard fare for acting schools), but when done well it seems almost effortless. Bosher’s production plays substantially better than the MTC production, even with an actor still on script.
When the performances are as strong as they are here, the theatrical experience is extraordinary. Seeing Cock in (almost) full flight is absolutely thrilling.
[box]Cock is at the Old Fitz Theatre until March 6. Featured image by Tim Levy[/box]

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