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REVIEW: Cock by Mike Bartlett

Matthew Connell (John) and Marissa O'Reilly in Cock

John has been with his boyfriend for seven years, so it’s a surprise to them both when John meets and falls in love with a woman. But is it love or is it infatuation? Or maybe it’s just the allure of something different or a kind of normalcy that society has convinced him he really wants?

Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a brutal play about society’s expectations – the kind that is bred into us – and a man who cannot make a decision. This production, directed by Beng Oh, is fast-paced and never lets up long enough for the audience to catch its breath. One minute, John and his boyfriend’s relationship is breaking down. The next they are reconciling because the woman John has fallen in love with is following him, stalking him.

Or is that the lie that John tells his boyfriend to make everything seem better? Like when John tells him that the woman is “manly” – as if that might soften the blow, as if you can ever soften the truth that you’ve cheated on someone.

I first saw Cock at the Melbourne Theatre Company five years ago, where I had a lot of sympathy for John. I identified with the character because he was torn between what society expected of him and what he thought he really wanted.

There’s a moment late in the play where John’s boyfriend’s father says John must choose what he is – as if he must be gay or straight, one or the other. Even for an older man being enlightened enough to accept his son and his boyfriend, he can only see the binary – gay or straight. John knows enough to know that he might not be one or the other – he might be a stew.

This production, first staged at the Meat Market in 2018, embraces the battle at the heart of the play. It’s not one cock fight, though. It’s a series of increasingly tough clashes between John and his boyfriend, John and his girlfriend – and a battle royale at the end with everyone head-to-head.

Matthew Connell’s John is the epitome of indecision; not that the performance is unclear. This John is suffering, not because of the choice everyone expects him to make, but because he’s clearly in an abusive relationship. John is a tough character to like, but Connell embodies a man who has lived so long with a man who treats him badly, that you understand why he cannot make up his mind.

John’s boyfriend (Shaun Goss) and girlfriend (Marissa O’Reilly) are both more complicated than they first seem – and absolutely flawed, too. The rapid-fire dialogue sometimes makes it hard to engage with anyone emotionally, but there’s something very watchable about Goss’ on-edge boyfriend and O’Reilly’s stuck-in-her-head girlfriend.

Scott Gooding as the father is a breath of calm fresh air in the middle of the battle, but he’s also stuck in his ways and hampered by how society has raised him.

It struck me on this viewing of the play that this very clearly isn’t a play about bisexuality – it’s about the how false the choice that John faces is: the idea that he has to choose between a man or a woman. Never once does he consider choosing himself by choosing to be single.

And none of the others consider this either. Society has trained us to think we must be in relationships, even bad ones – and we’ll fight to the death not to be alone, even if it makes us unhappy.

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