Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Cock - Theatre Review

What: Cock
When: 30 January - 10 February 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Written by: Mike Bartlett
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Matthew Connell, Scott Gooding, Shaun Goss and Marissa O'Reilly
Designed by: Emily Collett
Lighting by: Andy Turner
Sound by: Tom Backhaus
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Matthew Connell and Marissa O'Reilly
For those of you who missed Cock last year (presented by Bakers Dozen), director Beng Oh has remounted it as part of Midsumma through his own company 15 Minutes From Anywhere. Cock is playing until 10 February at fortyfivedownstairs.

Cock was written by British playwright, Mike Bartlett in 2009 and won the the Olivier Award for outstanding achievement on it's first production. It is an interesting play and most of the ideas in the play are very contemporary (exempt for the in-your-face misogyny) and for the most part it talks about how we like to categorise people. Are you gay or are you straight? To be anywhere in between is betrayal of the worst kind.

This is John's (Connell) story which is emphasised by the fact no-one else in the cast has a name. John is anyone though - John Doe for example - and in this cockfight of a play he is pitted in the ring against M[an] (Goss), W[oman] (O'Reilly), and F[ather] (Gooding) in round after round of verbal battle and confrontation as he tries to find himself in a world of black and white with no shades of grey.

John is in a relationship with M. They break up and John discovers he is attracted to W and has a relationship. M tries to win him back and seeks back up from F. And thus begins an hour and a half of non-stop, circular, repetitive conversation which - to be honest - left me wanting to kill them all.

This is not the fault of the actors or the director. Most of the blame falls on the writer. Bartlett has obviously never heard of the concept of dramatic action and, whilst I rail against it as a dominating theory, I confess that Cock reminds me of why I should pay the idea far more respect than I do.

There has been a school of writing (hypernatural) which revels in minutiae and repetition and stays in the same place for far too long. I am reminded of Lauren Langlois' solo in The Complexity of Belonging. She was brilliant but the material was soul-destroyingly repetitious and the quantity of the content was inversely proportional to the quality of the commentary. Cock in  it's entirety is much like this.

Cock is pure dialogue which is something of a teaching trend in the play writing community at the moment. As such it makes a great radio play. It is hypernatural - not my favourite form - and staging instructions insist on an empty ring in which the fight takes place.  Beng Oh has worked hard to honour the playwright's intentions in his directions.

Beng Oh is also, evidently, a student of Viewpoints and the cast move about the stage keeping the teeter board always in balance as required. Unfortunately in such paired back circumstances the tools become apparent and, as with all legerdemain, once you see the trick you no longer feel the magic. Used sparingly, Viewpoints is a powerful technique, but in Cock it goes too far and actually destroys the visceral potential of the cock fights taking place. It removes the raw, the messy, the brokenness of the relationships we are viewing.

Connell in particular, whilst giving an amazing performance, lacked the feral nature of his desperation to understand himself and his resistance to everyone to fit into a label. Goss embodies his energies well as the controlling partner, and O'Reilly is a welcome breath of respite until she, too is drawn into the fighting pit.

Gooding was far too restrained and emotionally removed. He goes in to the pit fight for his son's happiness but at the most feral moment in the play - when they really are all fighting for their lives as they want them to be - everyone is very demurely standing on opposite corners talking respectably across an empty playing space. This moment is the great directorial failure of this play.

So much of this production of Cock sets up massive challenges for itself and tends to handle them with admirable acceptability and moments of brilliance, but the design doesn't help. Earlier I mentioned that the play looks at how black and white our ideas are and how John is searching for his particular shade of grey. Collett has recognised this and represents it in the costuming but she has missed the point. M, F, and W are the black and white, and it is John who is the shade of grey.

Turner has demonstrated a restrained genius with a bright white flood of light with least number of blackouts possible (thankyou!) and as well as feeling like a fighting ring it had the wonderful ambience of this story being looked at under a microscope. Unfortunately between the bland lighting and the gray palette costumes there was nothing for the audience to look at - except each other because it is in the round.

Thus I keep going back to the idea this is a radio play, not a stage play. One of the requirements of stage is you need to provide something to look at. The most interesting thing to see in the room was the audience with their wonderful outfits and in the melting heat we became something of a Dahli painting - panting and sweating and wilting in the airless room.

This brings me onto my soap box. If the audience is uncomfortable they will not fully enter the world of the play. This means, in extreme weather conditions, it is better to have the sound of heating or cooling which becomes a redundant background noise they will tune out. This idea that noise in the auditorium will destroy the play is far more ridiculous than the reality that a body in distress will trigger an escape reflex which you then have to spend the entire time fighting.

Back to the show though. Cock is a great example of just how pared back minimalism can be. If Bartlett's writing was a bit more economical, the show - in particular this production - would be quite phenomenal. There are points in the scenes where the characters go to leave the stage but are drawn back into the conversation only to start repeating themselves. These are the points Bartlett should have edited his work.

I have nothing but absolute awe and amazement at the cast's ability to learn those lines, speak them at that pace, and imbue them with meaning, intention, and recognise every emotional transition. As I said earlier too, I think this conversation about the prejudices of both extremes of the gay/straight spectrum is well placed and extremely important. The ensemble are working with difficult and complex material and can be proud of what they have done with it.

2.5 Stars

No comments:

Post a Comment