BWW Review: COCK, Minerva Theatre
First performed at the Royal Court in 2009, Mike Bartlett's play Cock has been revived as part of the Chichester Festival season at the Minerva Theatre, following on from Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Despite being written almost a decade ago, the themes of this play are arguably more relevant now than they ever have been, so this revival could not have been timed much better.
John has a serious dilemma. He has always considered himself to be gay, having only ever had relationships with men - he has been with his current boyfriend for several years. However, whilst on a break from his long-term relationship, he finds himself developing feelings for a woman; she approached him believing they knew one another, but it turned out they just share the same commute so have inadvertently seen each other quite a lot.
Indecisive at the best of times, John now faces the challenge of working out who he really is - and who he wants to be with. As understanding as his two lovers are about the complexity of this discovery, John's approach becomes frustrating for all involved, and things come to a head at a dinner party with a questionable guest list.
The Minerva's auditorium has been completely transformed to stage this play, being set up in the round rather than its more usual thrust setting. Cock (and its companion piece, of sorts, Bull) was partly inspired by Bartlett watching a bull fight and hearing about illegal cock fights in Mexico, so it plays like a fight between all involved; by staging it in an intimate arena like this, it really drives the metaphor home. It also means there is absolutely nowhere to hide, which ramps up the pressure on John as it finally comes to the point where he has to make a move. Georgia Lowe's design, in conjunction with Guy Hoare's lighting design, makes this an extremely striking piece of theatre.
Over the course of 90 minutes, it's incredible how markedly - yet subtly - the tone shifts. The opening skirmishes between John and his boyfriend are incredibly funny, invariably seeing John on the receiving end of a witty put-down. However, once his girlfriend is introduced we start to see a different side to John, which inevitably affects how things play out at the dinner party - the tension ramped up by the introduction of a wildcard fourth guest. From a laugh-out-loud beginning, it develops into a very poignant play.
There are strong performances from all four actors, but Luke Thallon and Matthew Needham as John and boyfriend are particularly outstanding. John's indecisive nature could easily be viewed as irritating at times, but Thallon's portrayal is so endearing that you can't help but feel for him; his lovers absolutely deserve to know where they stand, but in pressing him to choose between them they don't seem to realise that it's inextricably linked to how he will identify himself from then on. The strain this exerts on John slowly builds up in Thallon until he is physically unable to contain it any longer.
As the boyfriend, Needham is a master of comic timing, and an incredibly expressive actor - starting off all banter and bravado, this gradually wears down until his emotions are laid bare. His desperation to keep John in his life is deeply affecting.
Kate Hewitt's production is a slick, well-conceived affair that will delight and move audiences in equal measure. On the strength of this alone, Cock should definitely be considered a modern gem of a play.
Picture credit: The Other Richard