Review: Cock

Should sexuality play a central role in constructing our own identity? MTC, photo Jeff Busby

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s contemporary comedy of manners Cock opened on the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) main stage last week. Highly anticipated after winning an Olivier Award with its London production, this play about a unconventional love triangle tries to push beyond the usual limits of sexual identity. But does it succeed?

Protagonist John (Tom Conroy) is torn between loving two people. Act 1 sees him dissatisfied in his relationship with M – for man – (Angus Grant). He reveals he has slept with someone else. To M’s disgust this person is a woman.

Act 2 is from the competing perspective as we see John’s burgeoning relationship with W – for woman – (Sophie Ross). The palpable chemistry between John and W is in direct contrast to the toxic relationship with M.

John is tirelessly indecisive (some have suggested infuriatingly so) as he continues relationships with both M and W telling them both the same story – that he will leave the other to be with them. The play culminates in an uncomfortable dinner party where both M and W it seems will stop at nothing to win John over, from using emotional blackmail to cheesecake.

Victorian College of the Arts graduate Marg Howell’s set design is perhaps the strongest aspect of this production. The play opens with the stage covered in identical white cushions, which the cast rearrange – sometimes laboriously – throughout the play. The changing set culminates in the pillows being moved outwards to create an arena for the showdown between M and W.

MTC, photograph: Jeff Busby

Lighting designer Rachel Burke emphasises John’s changing state of mind. When with M, we have a blue shaft of light; with W, the stage is lit pink – an emphasis of gender differences that’s a little too unassuming for my liking.

While localised with Australian accents and a musical score by local singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, there were a few misplaced references (consistent with the play’s English origins) that were quite jarring, such as catching “the Tube” or spending “seven pounds” on a bottle of wine.

At its core, the play questions the rigid dichotomy between gay and straight. John’s wearisome uncertainty about his choice of partner is a result of this rigidity. Does John stay with the familiar M, who he has been with for several years? Or does he pursue a relationship with W and lead a more socially conventional heterosexual life. John – we soon realise – is a passive figure who defines himself through his relationships.

The script sees M and W, for their own ends, pointing to the ugly sides of these options. M reacts with disgust at the thought of John being with a woman. Intending to somehow soften the blow, John lies and says that she is manly – leading M to ask if W is a “tranny” with big hands. M also reveals a level of misogyny that is uncomfortable to sit through.

W offers an ultimatum laced with hackneyed stereotypes, which I found quite homophobic. If John chooses her they can have six children and romantic trips to Paris, where if he chooses M, all he has is M – glossing over the fact that gay men can and do adopt.

MTC, photograph: Jeff Busby

For both M and W, John is a blank slate where they can write their own desirable future and John’s indecisiveness appears to stem from this social pressure.

The accompanying theatre programme expands upon this history of sexual identity. There is an historical account of the development of homosexual identity as theorised by various thinkers from the fields of medicine and psychiatry, such as Freud, Evelyn Hooker and Alfred Kinsey.

We are given the history of homosexuality in the theatre followed by the categorisation of bisexuality in light of Kinsey’s findings. Missing from these accompanying accounts is any queer critique of identity.

Grounded in gender and sexuality, queer thinking is born out of questioning whether sexual orientation and gender identity are inherent to our essential selves or socially constructed. For me, this appears to be the major theme of the play.

John’s blank-slate identity demonstrates how sexual labels are socially constructed and that we are the products of our own culture. In this sense, queer marks a suspension of identity as something fixed, coherent and natural and can be seen to give voice to previously obscured voices within this hetero/homo binary constructed by M and W.

Cock sees John struggle as a queer figure. The final result of this struggle never seems fully realised, which leads me to think Cock, as an exploration of identity, is rather underdeveloped.

For a play about the limitations of identity politics and the gender binary, Cock isn’t all that transgressive.


Melbourne Theatre Company‘s production of Cock plays at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, February 7 – 22 March 2014; and at La Boite Theatre, Queensland, 27 March – April 12 2014.