The provocatively named Cock opened at the Royal Court last night and proved to be as vivid, punchy and revealing as the title would suggest, but in no way as shocking as you might imagine.
Instead, Mike Bartlett’s piece is a witty and painful in-depth look into one man’s psyche and the ever-changing ideas of sexuality and love. From the free love of the Romans, to the liberal views of the 70s that gave people the right to choose a sexual label, we arrive in a new century where suddenly the idea of labels seems not to offer so much freedom as once believed.
Struggling to define his sexuality is John, a young, selfish, flaky and, most dangerously of all, utterly endearing man who has only ever fancied men. When his relationship with his long-term partner M falls apart he unexpectedly finds himself straightened out, quite literally, in the arms of W, a sweet divorcee whose petite, feminine ways hold new appeal for John.
Believing himself to be in love with both M and W (which presumably stands for Man and Woman), and for the first time in his life believing he has a choice as to how his life can be, John is left with a momentous decision. Now the ability to marry and have a family no longer rests on being straight, what is left to tip the balance of advantage either way?
Counting advantages may seem cold and unrealistic, but this is how John – played by a perfectly fragile and self-aware Ben Whishaw – judges relationships, being held together by M (Andrew Scott) and W (Katherine Parkinson) in turn and relying on them for their doting affections. M offers him unconditional love mixed in with a healthy dose of outrage for his many shortcomings, all forgiven in an instant thanks to John’s wistful smiles and puppy dog eyes peaking out of his perfectly coiffed floppy hair. W, in contrast, is gentle and patient, John’s personal cheerleader who believes herself to be healing him after his exaggerated and degrading relationship with M. The three, finding themselves at an emotional crossroad, meet for an intensely awkward dinner party where John is forced to make his choice and decide who he is.
Performed in the round, in an intimate space with no props or elaborate stage direction, save for a vast wooden light above their heads recalling the Habitat bourgeois flat we expect M to inhabit, every painful flinch, hurtful silence and rush of lust goes unmissed by the audience. Although the exact situation might be one that few have experienced, the awkward conversation, desperation and confusions of love are played out in such touching detail that it is painfully relatable and at once both hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measures.