Relationships in the round

Cock (La Boite Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

March 27 – April 12

Often the best stories in theatre are those that focus on just a few critical characters and their relationships, for relationships, in all their forms, can be fascinating, all-absorbing things. And relationships are what are at the core of the highly anticipated and provocatively titled play “Cock”, whose narrative fractures the most fundamental concepts of a love triangle.

20-something John (Tom Conroy) has been in a toxic relationship with his with his partner M (Eamon Flack) for several years, despite their fundamental differences (John is like cheese, while M is like whatever is the opposite of cheese). After another breakup, John falls in love with W (Sophie Ross), a free spirited, chaotic woman and from there the drama really begins.

John suggests a civilised dinner party, to which all are invited, including a surprise guest, M’s father, F (Tony Rickards). Dinner is awkward (who would have thought?) as M realises than W is not the horrible Labyrinth-like creature he anticipated. Before the meal is over, John is faced with making a choice as to his lover and his identify. As F calls it, “you need to work out who you are. That’s at the heart of all this…  It comes down to you. … Who are you really?”

As the drama unfolds, what follows are some moments of intense discomfort as John articulates his frustration of his indecision. M and W are just objects in his life, labeled without names (M for man, W for woman) in symbolism of what they represent to him. To the audience, there are multi-faced characters, with human faults and flaws and there are many identifiable aspects to their characters, albeit positive and negative. M is mean and controlling, W is ultimately manipulative towards her clichéd ideas regarding what women want in heterosexual relationships and John is selfish in in his uncertainty. F sprouts some wonderful platitudes about how the greatest happiness is to know that your child is happy, however, is also opinionated and overbearing. And by the end of the show, there is little left to like about any of them. It is not comfortable to watch, because we all either know people like this or we are these people.

Just as the protagonist is given a generic moniker and characters are known only by their letter names, the abstract nature of the play is also realised without use of props (although proximity and distance are played out naturalistically). Set design is also minimal; the stage is covered with over 200 white pillows, which add a textual element to the space. Like the characters playing around them, they are simultaneously comfortable and claustrophobic.

The play’s provocative title is reference to the idea of a rooster and in particular to cock-fighting. The dialogue is littered with fighting metaphors and motifs abound beyond just the physical staging, in lighting and movement. Through much of the action, the actors circle each other, as if ready for battle. And it is wonderful to see the show realised in complete theatre in the round, unlike its Melbourne season, but in keeping with the intent of its original premise both in script and on stage in London.

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Another of the play’s strengths is its insightful writing. The naturalistic dialogue is honest, engaging and hilarious in its use of analogies such as W’s observation to John that “some people might think you were scrawny, but I think you’re like a picture drawn with a pencil. I like it. You haven’t been coloured in”. Ultimately this is a story of relationships rather than sexuality. And with such a universal theme, it is a shame to have it set in place through its UK references to A levels, Blue Peter and pounds, which could easily have been altered. The appearance of F so late in Act Two, is also jarring, given that his character has not been referenced in any of the earlier dialogue and has little to do with the central conflict of the play.

Without scenery, sets or props, as distraction, the production rests on the skill of the actors and they do not fail to deliver, with precise performances that capture the script’s honesty. Eamon Flack is a standout as M, nasty and unlikeable, but fragile beneath his confident edifice. And Tom Conroy’s committed performance as John is perhaps not fully appreciated until the show’s final scenes. Not only is his physical investment in his character’s turmoil, heart-retching, but his decision speech is so impassioned that the audience cannot do anything but watch in silence, stunned beyond reaction.

“Cock” is an emotional play for audience members who empathise with John’s indecision/self-indulgence and the resonance of its dramatic moments is emphasised by the musical interludes composed by Missy Higgins, although ultimately they are not integral to its mood or momentum. Hopefully audiences will look beyond the production’s phallic title (and kudos to producers for using the original label and not the sanitised “The Cockfight Play”) for this touring production from Melbourne Theatre Company is one worth seeing, to witness some superb performances and experience its solid script.

Although the tedium of its protagonist’s indecision is frustrating almost to the point of disengagement, the play makes some important points about relationships, power, sexuality and conformity. In its journeyed exploration of the human condition, “Cock” examines some complex themes and offers some important conclusions about relationships, primarily that you fall in love with the person, not their gender, however, given the nature of most theatre-going audiences, it might well be a case of lecturing to the already-converted about how they should consider sexuality.

Photo c/o – http://www.laboite.com.au/

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