By Mike Bartlett
Directed by David MacPherson
May 5 – May 23
Reviewed by Joy Fisher
What do you think of when you hear the word “cock?” English playwright Mike Bartlett had at least three meanings in mind when he wrote the play Cock, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009 and opened at Theatre Inconnu on May 7.
First, and perhaps not surprisingly for a young man still in his twenties when he wrote his play, Bartlett was thinking of that part of human anatomy found exclusively on the male of the species.
John, the main character (played by Robert Conway), has left his long-term gay lover, “M”, (John is the only character with a name) and has unexpectedly fallen in love with a woman, “W”, but he hasn’t lost his fascination, it seems, for that special part of the male body. As he is making love to W for the first time, he confesses: “I’m worried is there going to come a moment when I’m missing his cock.” And when he gets scared and runs back to M, he tries to assure him of his sincere desire to reconcile by saying: “I still whack off to you every night.” Charming fellow, this John!
For some inexplicable reason, both of John’s lovers want him and are prepared to fight for him. When M (played by Cam Culham) convinces John to invite W (played with delightful spunk by Melissa Blank) to dinner at their home so that they can all sit down and “talk things over,” the scene is set for the second meaning of “cock.” Bartlett explained in a published interview that, during a visit to Mexico, he discovered they still have cockfights there—“an activity where you come together for a ritualized killing of an animal—where you come because they’re going to suffer, and you’re like a mob surrounding this fight to the death.”
And that’s how this play is staged: the audience, cast as the mob, seated on four sides surrounding the action, as if to watch a fight to the death.
No one dies, as it turns out, but there is a considerable amount of suffering on all sides. John has led each of his lovers to believe he has decided in their favour and is just waiting for dessert to reveal his choice to the other. M, who knows John well, has his doubts, and has invited M’s father (“F,” played by Eric Grace) to dinner for emotional support. It soon becomes clear that John hasn’t made a choice, and despite pressure from all sides, is incapable of making one. Out of this emerges the third meaning of “cock:” “[I]n Britain, if someone’s really irritating,” the playwright explained, “you think ‘Oh, he’s a complete cock.’” John is a complete cock.
John isn’t the only irritating thing about this play. It breaks with many conventions of stage plays. For example, the playwright has dictated that it should be played without scenery, furniture or props. Even worse, it’s played without “mime,” that is, without actions that suit the dialogue. At one point, John demands that M take off his clothes. The dialogue seems to indicate that M has complied, but the actors remain clothed. At another point, the dialogue indicates that John and W are making love, but the actors aren’t even touching. According to the playwright, the intent is to place the focus entirely on the drama of the scene, but I found the discontinuity between the dialogue and the action shattered my focus and took me out of the drama of the scene.
Bartlett claims Cock is intended to be an examination of how rigid definitions of sexual identity can interfere with making a choice based on the person one is drawn to. I can think of scenarios that would explore this dilemma dramatically, but this isn’t one of them. John doesn’t experience any character development in Cock; he’s much too passive for that. As a result, the play was as frustrating for some of its viewers as John was for both M and W.
Sometimes, though, frustration can lead to passionate involvement. When I was walking back to my car after the performance, I came upon two women standing on the sidewalk talking about the play. I joined them, and the three of us hashed it over, rewrote the ending, made the choices John refused to make. We were so caught up in our heated discussion it was a long time before we noticed the chill of the cool night air.
Maybe that’s why Cock won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2010.
Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.