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Mike Bartlett's 'Cock' is theatrically strong, but its themes are outdated

3.5/5

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Madeline Bannenberg

In a way, there’s a silver lining in knowing that a gay man “coming out” as straight has become a bit of a comedic cliche. This and other themes were explored in Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play Cock, directed by Beng Oh as part of this year’s Midsumma Festival.

Matthew Connell plays John, a confidently gay man who falls in love with a woman. What ensues is a series of confusion, gender politics and a battle between romantic partners.

John’s character is frustrating and incapable of — for a lack of a better term — picking a side. Is his attraction to W “just a phase”? That’s what his boyfriend, M, and father-in-law seem to believe.

Connell has a firm grip on his character, giving subtle smirks and breaking fits of anger when needed in order to add depth. Marissa O'Reilly’s complementary portrayal of the woman, W, is strong, bringing sympathy and humour to a role despised half of the characters. Shaun Goss’ depiction of M is dramatic and flamboyant, unclear whether he is overacting or just simply parodying the gay stereotype.

The dialogue takes a leaf from Aaron Sorkin’s book, with back and forth between John and M  firing at a rapid pace, to the extent it is somewhat unbelievable. Oh’s direction of Cock in the unconventional theatre in the round space added a new layer of chaos to the plot. Frantic walking around and entrances from various stage points kept the play in flux and the pace constantly pushing forward.

The play is as much about power as it is about identity. M switches from doting to cold in a heartbeat, depending on John’s fondness of him at the time. It’s a symptom typical of an emotionally abusive relationship, bringing to light the fact that any relationship can turn toxic. Both M and W seek John’s company, and will refuse him the time needed to sort his own shit out.

In the end, Bartlett was right to have John walk away from both potential partners, as I, and I’m sure most of the audience, would be left wondering ‘what if’ if one was chosen over the other. It’s also the morally right conclusion: no matter which partner he chose, John would be effectively playing into this false belief that any shift from heterosexuality is temporary.

Given the play was written a decade ago, it might be a little easier to shrug off the misogyny and transphobia present in the dialogue, but it can also speak to the issues that continue to plague the gay scene. Moreover, one has to wonder whether a play that only mentions the word “bisexual” once or twice in its script — and even then, it's in a pejorative context — has a place in 2019. Even if the coming out stereotype is turned on its head, within the play lies an underlying question of whether the B in LGBTIQ+ truly exists. What matters now is whether the audience knows the right answer. Maybe cock isn’t the only four letter word present.

Cock is running at fortyfivedownstairs until Sunday February 10 as part of Midsumma Festival.