Cock: Comedic but unsettling

Director Beng Oh’s production of Cock by Mike Bartlett returns after a 2018 season at The Stables, Meat Market, and is now being staged at the inimitable fortyfivedownstairs as part of Midsumma 2019. Cock centres around John (Matthew Connell), who’s in a seven-year relationship with a man M (Shaun Goss). Having long identified openly as gay, John finds himself attracted to a woman W (Marissa O’Reilly). The play’s tension becomes simultaneously about John trying to determine his sexuality, and who between the two he wants to be with.

Despite some comedic and wonderfully cringey moments, the play feels stilted. Bartlett runs into a number of hurdles and has difficulty navigating them to any constructive end. Namely, W is a character created to just be a female body. She is treated terribly, objectified by everyone, and does little in the way of protest – when she does it really does remind you of who was writing her words. Nothing she does is understandable, it is all just to further Bartlett’s desire to have her pit off against M for John’s affection. Moreover, the play’s ideas of sex and love are fixated on genitals. John even goes so far as to say that he loves M more, but prefers sex with W; prefers the vaginal sex. The play realises that it situates John’s dilemma in a binary: he either wants the male or female, he either wants the cock or the cunt. So, when John tries to calm his partner by saying the woman he slept with was actually quite “masculine”, M laughs about her having a penis. Bartlett tries to acknowledge that gender and genitals are not one and the same by turning transgender people into the butt of a joke. This was not challenged or unpacked by the production; it was performed to be just a joke, one that is continued through the play as W is revealed to be in fact quite feminine. It was deeply unsettling.

The performances don’t really grapple with the issues that are present in the text either. Whether intentional or not, Connell’s John is a wet towel, which leaves us wondering what either M or W see in him anyway. Scott Gooding does a remarkable job of making us hate the father, but little in the way of resolution comes from his character’s existence. A presence that seems at first a welcome mediator, one that will call out John for his treatment of the others, F instead berates the others, is verbally abusive and dismissive of W, and then retreats to the fold-out couch. O’Reilly gives an honest performance, but is deeply limited by how one-note Bartlett wrote her role to be. Fortunately, Goss makes great efforts to bring out the absurdity in the play. He is a pleasure to watch and I could almost suggest watching this purely for his performance. Consequently, this raises questions about what the play could be, how it could reflect on how problematic and contrived a scene it paints by pushing it into farce.

Cock does have genuinely enjoyable moments, but I question why it would be staged as part of the Midsumma festival, given how the text treats women and transgender people.

 

Arthur Knight

 

15 minutes from anywhere’s production of Cock runs from the 30 January – 10 February 2019 at fortyfivedownstairs.

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