Review: Cock, by Mike Bartlett

by Shihang

Radio Play, heard on BBC Radio 3. You can find it on Soundcloud as well.

Cast:
John – Ben Whishaw
M – Andrew Scott
W – Katherine Parkinson
F – Paul Jessen

Cockfight

Before the play begins proper, there is a short interview with the playwright, Mike Bartlett, who says rather curiously that the play was inspired by cock fights he saw in Mexico (giving the other meaning to the provocative title). Having listened to the play, the influence of the blood sport becomes clear. The entire play is essentially a war where everybody seems to be against someone at any point in time. Each scene is essentially a verbal spar between the various characters (and the last scene a vicious free for all), and is rung in by a bell that signals the beginning of the bout.

The play begins with John telling M that they are not right for each other. M does not take John’s protests very seriously at all, and languidly tells him that he annoys him because “they are like brothers and that is what brothers do”. John in exasperation leaves, only to return in the next scene bearing gifts, something that M finds suspicious. Under questioning, John reveals something that wounds M, that in the time he was gone, he had fallen in love with a woman, throwing him into confusion as to whether he is really gay. It turns out that he had met W on the tube, and when he had sex with her, he found that he enjoys it far more than when he has sex with M. He alternates between the two of them, and brings the two together for dinner, promising each that there, he will break it off with the other. But really he has not made his decision, and it is this that is the central tension, one that is propelled towards resolution by sullen and sarcastic boyfriends, doggedly determined girlfriends and a pompous, pontificating F. The final scene especially is brilliantly paced and works itself to a climax as everybody gets more desperate; even after the deed has been done and the dust is settling, the play concludes with a note of uncertainty, with John in deep thought and refusing to answer M’s plea for him to reply him, with a single word, that he will bring in the cushions and turn out the lights when he comes in.

This play reminds me of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, because like it, it contains intense flashes of passion, characters whose actions I barely understand, and some hard questioning by the main character about who he is and what he wants. It succeeds because the writing is good and the sentiments, if not particularly well or carefully thought out, are honest and sincere. Like Osborne’s play, it does not revolve around a central character in the way that Shakespeare’s Hamlet does, for example; rather we are made aware of the tumultuous emotions of all the characters and the way they are set against each other.

The two most diametrically opposed characters in the play, M and W, provide most of the conflict, but they are both victims. The difference between them is brought out well, and it is clear that Scott and Parkinson (who worked together in BBC’s Sherlock) have a lot of chemistry. M is aloof and dismissive, mocking W’s work as a teacher’s assistant as “not real work” and almost gloating in his financial success as a broker. F, on the other hand, is guarded, always insisting that they be courteous, “because we are civilised”, and confident that John will banish the harpies in his past with a word, allowing them to leap into the golden future of Paris, babies and Christmas dinners. But behind their facade, both are very vulnerable. Both love John and to an extent are extremely dependent on him, and that is why there is something a little despicable in the way John humphs and haws and drags out his decision.

Since M and W are victims, each more or less blameless in their reactions to potentially lost love, the true moral weight of the play lies in the actions of John. (F, I think we can discount because he serves more as a mouthpiece for the ideas on the nature of sexuality than a fully developed character.) The easy thing to do is to fall into one of two positions: (1) that John is a dithering idiot who by being so bound to notions of his gayness (for example, wondering if having sex with W was a reaction to a homophobic culture) that he ends up hurting the two people who love him, or (2) that John is in the process of discovering himself and that is never a neat and tidy process. Hence, it is not right to blame him for the mess because that would be introducing blame to desire, a violation of the general liberal consensus that self-determination should generally not be punished.

What do these two positions mean? The first blames John for being indecisive, implying that his choice should be guided by his own preference, that what is important is who he loves, not what he loves. Homosexuality becomes like any sort of identity tag, a limiting factor, which is an interesting inversion. After all, being gay has always been a matter of freedom (freedom to love whoever you want), but in this case, John seems locked in by his homosexuality. He doubts his affection for W because after all, he has never been attracted to women. The genetic explanation for homosexuality acquires a rather sinister determinist cast: you are born with a preferred gender, and there is nothing you can do to subvert this.

The second position takes the issue of John’s sexuality more seriously, but I wonder, to what end? It is true that John’s situation is disorienting, especially if he has seen his homosexuality as a consistent and important part of his identity. But insisting weakly as he does that he has always only liked men is is like finding that facts do not fit the theory, and deciding that hence the facts must be wrong in some way. This is precisely what John does when he questions his sudden attraction to a woman. His theory about it being a response to a culture that is hostile towards gays is a brazenly self-serving idea, but it does raise the point that our culture has become so fascinated by sexual labels that the human relations that underpin them diminish in importance.

The play’s conclusion was written to be divisive and in my view, should be seen as a defeat. John’s own response, his silence, as well as both M and F’s attempts to fill the silence, all suggest that there has been something lost in letting F go, and that F’s vision of domestic bliss, however far-fetched and fragile, was a missed opportunity in some way. John’s inability to go, his unwillingness to abandon seven years of being in a relationship in which he feels a little out of place, especially after M desperately tries to bribe him with a cheese cake, feels ripe for remorse. Indeed, as Bartlett foreshadows early in the play, no one won from the exchange.

The play works particularly well as a radio play, mainly because it is so verbal. Perhaps this is one of those cases where removing the physical bodies of the actors benefits the experience, because it allows us to pay more attention to the nuances in the voices. The three main actors all turn in stellar performances. Whishaw’s John sounds particularly self-conscious, and contrasts well against Scott’s more lyrical delivery. Parkinson excels in the role of W, a performance elevated to stratospheric heights by the quiet hope she displays in the opening moments of the dinner which descends to horror at John’s betrayal.

Overall, I think Cock is a triumph, an emotionally charged work that delivers unequivocally on what it sets out to accomplish, that is, to portray the passions of different people as they feel them and to set them against each other in a way that prompts us to reflect on the nature of desire and sexuality.

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