Cock by Mike Bartlett
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Mike Bartlett is a master of dialogue, especially in triangular relationships where visceral emotions surface. Anyone knows that if they became immersed in the recent BBC TV series Dr Foster. This revival of his earlier award-winning play Cock, first produced at the Royal Court in 2009, lights up Chichester’s Minerva stage with coruscating brilliance.
On a bare stage, with no props, scenery, or furniture, John and his seven-year boyfriend quickly introduce us to their strong gay relationship, which has become strained. John insists to his partner that he loves everything about him and living with him, but he feels put down and unable to express himself.
Soon we learn that John has met a woman, they have had sex, he has fallen for her, and wants to leave M (that is his partner’s name in the programme, where only John is named). He says that he and the woman have met on the street regularly on the way to work, and, in time, one thing led to another. Before long, however, John wants to come back to M.
The play then recalls John’s meeting and rapture with the woman (known as W), who has become single after a broken relationship and effectively seduces him with her feminine wiles. The account of their sexual fulfillment is cleverly told in words and body language without any physical engagement.
Thus John has a dilemma. He loves both his partners in different ways, but is indecisive and cannot choose between them. A dinner party is arranged between the three of them, and this is just as fraught as the one in the first series of Dr Foster. John promises to announce his decision over the pudding. The inevitable early awkwardness at the beginning of the dinner party is interrupted by the arrival of M’s widowed father (F), who has been secretly invited. The intricate dance between the trio becomes a convoluted quartet.
The father insists that John makes his son happy, has been gay for many years since coming out at university, and needs to stay in his established gay relationship. The woman retorts that John is the only man for her, and he admits that he has felt more liberated as a person with her and enjoyed heterosexual sex more. Asked by the others to decide who he is, John is torn asunder and cannot make up his mind. While there is a sort of resolution, you are left unsure whether he has made the right choice, or even made a final decision at all.
Mike Bartlett says that Cock is as much about love as about sex. And, language warning – the theatre is blue with four letter words for most of the evening, a 90-minute one-piece staging of the play. Relationships and communication are all-important in Cock. The problem for John and his two partners is not even gender specific. The questions are: whether to stay with his difficult and overbearing partner who does not allow him to grow up and truly find his identity, but he knows and loves; or whether he should take the risk of moving into new sexual territory, which is unfamiliar but where he may just have a chance of finding himself. This is gripping stuff, beautifully played by Luke Thallon (John), Matthew Needham, Isabella Laughland and Simon Chandler (the father); and tightly directed by Kate Hewittt (named in 2017 as one of Variety’s ’10 Brits to Watch’).
This production of Mike Bartlett’s marvelous play is certainly well worth watching, and you can see it until October 27.