Preview: COCK

Riona Millar 11 November 2019

When I agreed to preview a show called COCK, there was a quiet little voice in the back of my head reminding me that potential employers like to Google you, and wondering what possible thoughts they might have when seeing a search result for “riona millar cock”. Fortunately, I – and my potential employers – have nothing to worry about.

Maya Yousif’s production of Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play is manifesting in the Corpus Playroom, in a mysterious white box – no decoration, no hastily pasted wallpaper, no set, no props. The name has many layers of meaning beyond the crude fundamental reference to male genitalia, in the context of two cis men in a relationship: Bartlett has made it clear that it’s actually more about cockfights, the brutal practice of pitting two roosters against one another for sport. The menace that underlies emotional manipulation in relationships is the crucial consideration here, beyond basic penis jokes (not that we should ever object to those).

Image credit: New York Public Library

First things first: when you look up the premise of COCK, it says that the play is about a gay man who falls in love with a woman. This is linguistically incorrect: John is a man, who goes from being in a longterm relationship with a man, M, to falling for a woman, W. Although the word bisexuality never comes up in the play, it is an exploration of sexual identity, and incredibly reductive to describe John as a gay man who, perhaps, missteps. Pedantry (and dismissal of biphobia) out of the way, the premise of the show is, at least on the surface, simple. John (Jamie Sayers) has been seeing M (Joe Pieri) for seven years; on meeting W (Hannah Lyall), a crisis of identity takes place, and John is forced into having to choose between the two. Kim Alexander, will play F, who in the original script is M’s father, but is here his mother, serving as a representative of the views of an older generation. John is just going through a phase, why does he need to label himself, bla, bla, bla…

I watch a few moments of running through Act 3, where John and M are playing host to W at arguably the world’s most uncomfortable dinner party. Hannah Lyall’s had to dash out to a lecture, so Jamie and Joe are just running through the moments shortly after W has rung the doorbell. The tension in the air is so thick that it could be cut with a knife, each interaction between the two fraught with what is to come – I find myself sitting forward in my seat waiting for W to walk through the door, even though I know her actor’s not even in the building… The totally empty set is perfect: nothing detracts our focus from the events onstage. In fact, they need not even be in the room. It is easy to see how the production could work as a radio play; in the space, however, the audience’s eyes will be forced to observe each excruciating moment of the play.

Image credit: COCK

In the discussion that follows, punctuated by party rings provided by producer Beth Kelly, the cast explain how Bartlett’s inspiration stemmed from a conversation overheard in Mexico City’s gay district: the whole play, then, runs like a conversation overheard. I ask if the play is about a crisis of sexuality, a wider crisis of identity, or something else?

The actors and director pause to consider this. Jamie takes another party ring. Ultimately, they feel, this is a play about menace; the underlying brutality and manipulation that underpins our relationships, the selfishness that drives us all. Happiness for others produces happiness in oneself: it is not altruistic. Every character in the play is flawed, imperfect; there is no one hero, nor are we driven to view them all as antagonists: we can sympathise with their failings. It forces the viewer to question their inner and outer views: M considers himself to be a liberal creature, and yet is driven through the play to misogyny and biphobia. In watching the play, the audience must confront their own possible internalised prejudices, and that is the real success of the play. The ‘cockfight’ is more allegorical: I did ask if there was any sort of Caucasian Cock Circle moment, as I am a pretentious English student who loves to throw in a Brecht reference; once I stepped off my horse of pretension and explained the reference, it did seem pertinent, but the violence that takes place between the characters of the play is fundamentally emotional rather than physical.

Maya Yousif warns me that this is her final production in Cambridge (although we’ve all heard/said/thought that before), and it’s looking like one that shouldn’t be missed.

 

 

COCK is showing at the Corpus Playroom from Tuesday 12th November at 7pm. Tickets are available from https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/cock/