Monday, 23 November 2009

Cock - Royal Court

[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]

There’s a great quote from the writer and director René Pollesch: “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only want to tell love stories”. Mike Bartlett’s Cock (let’s get the smirking over and done with now; I’ve been enjoying the joke for weeks, but it’ll get tiresome if we keep having to giggle through the review) comes (stop it.) at the question from the opposite direction – nominally telling a story about love, or “gender relations”, it actually proves to be an astute dissection of lives lived under advanced Western capitalism.

John and his boyfriend, M (for Man, we suppose) are bickering. They’ve been together a long time, the spark has gone. John leaves. John comes back. He’s slept with a woman (‘W’ unsurprisingly). All of a sudden his ideas of who he is, “what” he is, have been turned on their head.

As the story unpacks itself, it manages to throw up enough acute observations of the way relationships are conducted, the things people say to each other, the manner in which power and control are exercised in the name of “love”, the nature of desire and the things people do in bed to fill half a dozen less searching plays. It’s also incredibly funny and admirably filthy (at one point, W says she’s “got a gap on” – i.e. the female equivalent of a hard-on).

Bartlett’s text, too, is a thing of real precision. From the way that it is laid out on the page to its use of punctuation it has a real authority about it. While, of course, it makes perfect sense as dialogue, the exactness almost has more in common with sheet music than “proper sentences” written in the English language.

If the script is precise, then James Macdonald’s production is more than equal to staging it. Designer Miriam Buether has created a small wooden, circular amphitheatre in the middle of the Theatre Upstairs, evoking a feeling of a boutique gladiatorial arena crossed with one of those Victorian anatomy lecture theatres with viewing stalls for medical students. The stark overhead lighting is encased in a stylish circular wooden shade, adding to the impression of creatures in a Petri dish under a microscope.

I don’t know if the “wooden O” comparison is deliberate, but Macdonald certainly takes Shakespeare at his word as regards the primacy of the imagination; while the characters change clothes, get naked, have sex, and eat a meal, none of the performers undress or even handle a single prop. The pace and style of the production is singular and breathlessly intense. Andrew Scott’s M is a machinegun-fire hurricane of catty bitching in a Dublin accent trained mercilessly on Ben Wishaw’s sweetly diffident and confused Paul. Katherine Parkinson’s W cleverly manages to suggest an incredibly sexy, warm femininity while delivering her lines with a similarly stylised intense focus. It took me maybe three minutes to tune in and warm to the performance style, but once in I was absolutely hooked. It’s one of those productions that once seen, you can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

But, while the formal and emotional stakes are high, it’s the piece’s lightly worn intellectual credentials that are really fascinating. Bartlett clearly doesn’t set out to create a social critique, he’s just (“just”!) written a story that he thinks is interesting, in which characters with a bit of agency fight, have arguments and try to work out how to live. What’s fascinating is the stuff the seeps out from the edges. There’s a point where John says of coming out at university: “all these people hugged me and were proud of me and said how brave I was and suddenly people were touching me and I was wearing different clothes and I was part of a scene, even walking differently I think and everyone said the real me was emerging, that I’d been repressed...”

While this speech in its entirety feels like the moment where the play gets a bit too spelt out, it also crystallises the way in which the play moves the entire argument away from “issues” of sexuality/homosexuality and into the far bleaker territory of the commodification of desire; the way in which every feeling becomes a “lifestyle choice” expressed largely through commerce. The final moments of the play feel like The Birthday Party for desire – we’re no longer coerced and interrogated by sinister agents of The State, we’re policed by our partners. “The State” no longer needs to enforce its vision of normalcy on us; we’re unwittingly, brutally doing it to each other in the name of love.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Andrew. The only thing I would take issue with is the idea that Bartlett is 'just' trying to tell a story that interests him etc. I felt the play was very much an exercise and that the characters were quite clearly positioned to play out an argument about our (too) rigid definitions of sexuality. The Father particularly. I struggled to feel engaged emotionally and I do put that down to the self conscious levels of distancing going on in the play.

M said...

I don't know, I didn't really feel it was about his sexuality, it was about choice and identity. He couldn't make one, not at all. It was M and W who made a choice in choosing to hold out for him, but in doing so made it even harder for him to make the decision. He annoyed everyone by the end!

Anonymous said...

Like the play, a very intriguing piece Andrew. However, i agree with M. I don't believe it was about his sexuality. For me, it was about MESS. The inevitable carnage which leaves its ugly trace the moment one has to choose. Perhaps rather perversely the only character who annoyed me by the end was M and his relentless matronesque bid for John to bring in the cushions. It was so unbearably stifling i had to look away as i imagined how John's chosen life with such a neurotic might pan out. A beautiful production.

Henry North London said...

Twas a pity there was no interval, Bladder busting 90 minutes in one go, I was almost doubled in pain by the end. I didn't need the transference of John and his pain I had pain in the same place with no external effort.
As I was with a bunch of doctors and have been to the anatomy theatre in Guys hospital it was very redolent of the same kind of atmosphere, If they had made the place any smaller they would have captured it exactly, Very intense emotions At one point you could have cut the air with a knife.

You're not manly He said you were manly tall with big hands thats what he said.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Here's something I never thought I'd say: Quentin Letts got it spot on. The arena: cockfighting. Although I know of at least one other reviewer who mentioned it in draft, Quentin was the only one to make explicit mention in print of a dimension to the title other than just schlong-related, snigger-inducing candour. Which, in turn, not just clarifies but justifies the chimes between scenes/bouts etc. And so the sexuality, or the identity, becomes merely the prize: what it's about is the contention, the brute power, as the other three contend to fill the vacuum left by John's refusal or inability to demarcate his own autonomy.