Review: Cock

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CockOne central, raised white block and four actors share a stage surrounded by audience on three sides. There is no set to speak of, no props, no sound effects other than music, no lighting except for the odd black out, minimal use of costume, no use of mime… and it works.

This is Cock, written by Mark Bartlett and directed here by Paul Griffiths.

John, played by Francis Chouler, finds himself at the focal point of an awkward love triangle when he discovers he is attracted to a certain woman. Caught between feelings for his long term male partner and this passionate new female entity, his inaction drives both counterparts, each with powerful personalities, into an emotional tug of war of which John is the inevitable casualty.

Interestingly, John’s counterparts are never named in the play, despite the fact that they are all firmly grounded in their own identities while John constantly struggles to come to terms with his own, which eludes him at every turn.

John is sensitive and hesitant, now and then floating close to self-actualisation only to withdraw as another character’s intentions become involved. Chouler portrays this fragile emotional state with phenomenal sensitivity. He wraps depression around himself and emerges briefly in small, bright moments of discovery without ever fully dropping the gloom.

By contrast his male partner is ferociously sarcastic, articulate, witty and strong-willed. Matt Newman plays the part brilliantly, with vocal and gestural nuances and a natural sense of pace. John’s female love interest is intelligent, adventurous and self-confident. Melissa Haiden brings spunk to the table, her performance lifelike and effortless, measured yet reactive. John’s partner’s father, convincingly played by James Skilton, steps in to complicate the mix even further as a warm character, but one not quite able to let go of old prejudices.

Together, there is enough on-stage chemistry in Cock to refer to the cast as alchemists rather than actors.

But there is also another unique dimension to the play that makes it infinitely intriguing: the minimalist action on stage deviates pointedly from the dialogue. The characters paint their environment with words but their actions relate exclusively to their own emotional conditions and their physical relationships with one another.  One character will take off another’s coat without lifting a finger. As, according to the script, John is abjectly stirring his soup while seated at the table, in reality the actor is curled up in a corner. The action of sex is purely suggestive, as with everything else, and far more powerful as a result. It’s like looking into the minds of the characters while you listen to their story, and it’s masterfully done.

Cock is engaging, eloquent and unique.  It is also extremely funny. It’s hard to resist including some clever innuendo here, but let’s just say Cock really stands up to scrutiny.

Rory Appleton

Cock runs at the Alexander Bar, Cape Town from 3 to 14 March 2015.

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