Cock

This originally appeared in BCN issue 100.

Cock
If you’ll excuse the inevitable pun, I was ambivalent when I first heard of Cock. The shock-title, the bare set (a plywood theatre-in-the round structure like a half-finished art installation) and characters who are identified by first initial (‘M’ and ‘W’), throw up self-parodic notions of provocative Fringe theatre. So far, so 90s.  It’s also difficult to envisage The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson in a play of this kind without recalling the achingly hilarious episode of that sitcom in which Jen’s closeted work colleague takes her out on a date to a gay musical called, er, GAY The Musical. Yet queer plays that specifically address bisexuality are as rare as a cheap meal on Sloane Square, let alone those featuring two actors of the calibre of Parkinson, and Ben Whishaw (of Perfume and the Brideshead Revisited remake) so it is worth a punt for that alone.

John (Whishaw) and ‘M’ (Andrew Scott) are a cohabiting, comfortably out and comfortably-off gay couple in a fledgling relationship with all the seven-year-itch warning flags raised. M. patronises and belittles John into revealing something that’s been on his mind lately – as it turns out, the fact that he has fallen in love with a woman for the first time in his life. She is W., an intense, softly-spoken classroom assistant he meets on his daily commute. The awkward tension in both John and M.’s failing relationship and John and W.’s opposite-sex relationship are both heightened by the complete absence of props. This minimalist approach is stretched to greatest effect in John’s virgin sex scene with W., conveyed using only words and sounds ‘Yes, yes, circles are good’, while the actors embrace one another fully-clothed.

Upon learning of his boyfriend’s hetero infidelity, M. lurches into a calculated Graham Norton camp persona to cover his vulnerability, and asks John to invite W. over for dinner at their flat in an attempt to understand the situation better. This puts John in the kind of hot water only a Monogamous Fuckwit can find themselves in – firstly because he has previously assured M. that W. is ‘manly’ to try and appease him, secondly because has assured both his lovers that they are The Chosen One and that he will be announcing his intent to leave the other during the soiree. (Naturally, in a play already combining Ayckbourn-level farce with more weighty issues than an airport newsagents’, the option of a polyamorous setup doesn’t get much of a look-in). To further up the excruciating factor, M. introduces a final dinner guest, his father.  A harrumphing English gent who has found acceptance of homosexuality through believing it to be pre-determined, M. Senior, invokes the gay gene theory to invalidate John’s new-found feelings for women. After a long exposition on how some men like boys and some like girls, he brings in the question: “Unless you’re saying that you’re bisexual?’ as though he is pronouncing a foreign word. A tormented John simply responds that he has no idea who he is, and just wants to be with someone who appreciates him.

Depending on your point of view, this production is either the whinings of an annoyingly stereotypical self-hating, self-absorbed bisexual, or a compelling, brilliantly acted and well observed piece about the sometimes-difficult reality of being bisexual in a society that doesn’t properly recognise this identity. I lean towards the latter.  Though its moral is ultimately pretty soul-destroying: for bisexuals it is often easier to love neither than to love both, it addresses several issues around the validity of queer identity politics better than any contemporary drama I have ever seen.  This is particularly true of  ‘coming out backwards’, and the fact that, far from craving hetero-normality, many gay and lesbian people find it easier to remain part of the scene once established in it, whether or not it still reflects how they feel. Importantly, it successfully emphasises that most of the factors that drive John towards W. are emotional issues relating to his relationship not biological issues relating to gender. The most poignant moment of a sharp and often very funny script comes from W., in reply to John’s “I’m not attracted to women.” “But I’m not women, I’m me.”
Bravo, W. – or whatever your name is.

Maxine