Review: Cock, Old Fitzroy Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s script for Cock is dense and aurally-driven; off-kilter language choices, particularly from central character John, buzz around the audience and into their ears. Naturalistic and immediate, sentences are left hanging and words are chopped off and out, creating a syntax that is at once intensely familiar and startlingly unique. Bartlett captures something very genuine in his small, tightly-focused play, and director Shane Bosher has listened closely to the script. His production at the Old Fitz is wordy, and insightful, and unapologetic.

It is very, very good.

John (Michael Whalley) is permanently rumpled, thin and out of place in a world that has only sharp edges. He has been with his partner M (Matt Minto), whom he lives with, for several years. M is everything that John isn’t: focused, so secure in his own worth and intelligence that he seems allergic to doubt. But John travels the same route to work as W (Matilda Ridgway), and without ever expecting it, he falls for her.

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley in COCK at the Old Fitz. Photo by Tim Levy.
Matt Minto and Michael Whalley in COCK at the Old Fitz. Photo by Tim Levy.

W is more together than John, too, but so is everyone, and she is lonely and she understands something about John’s loneliness, the kind of anxiety he wears all over his face that says, ‘I don’t have a place yet in the world’ (indeed, John later says he has no idea who he is, that everyone seems to have a personality and he does not; he is always lost). W attempts to find him, and John does find something in her, something he believes is authentic.

When they have sex for the first time, John and W are centre stage, circling each other, creating a rhythm and experience with words and their restrained movement alone. It’s incredibly intimate, much more so than nudity, and the close-up, in-the-round seating on the Old Fitz stage provides a close reading of their faces. Whalley and Ridgway are superb in this scene, both impressive in their subtle complexity of expression. Ridgway can crinkle her nose and half-laugh and somehow that says everything; Whalley can hunch and curve and quirk his upper lip and that’s a thousand words.

Minto’s M is not static but his expression and movement is more straightforward, which makes perfect sense for his driven nature: when he’s upset tears well up in his eyes because he makes no attempt to hide when he feels wronged, and it’s all supported by the script. It’s M who calls John out for pointing as they argue, it’s M who points out, quite rightly, that they are at a distance because John has ordered M across the room.

The marriage between script and direction in this production is so harmonious that props and authentic miming of the business of dinner and anything else are happily discarded, because we care about the story much more than distraction. We zero in on John’s frustrating, debilitating anxiety and indecision. On W’s naked, sensitive, demand for love and that John stand up for it. On M’s deep sense of betrayal.

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway in COCK at the Old Fitz - Photo by Tim Levy
Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway in COCK at the Old Fitz – Photo by Tim Levy

Shane Bosher balances these headstrong moments with quieter ones like it’s the thing he does best in the world; from New Zealand’s Silo theatre, he’s a welcome addition to Australia’s independent theatre. He understands ferocity and gentleness and how to propel these scenes into something so gripping, so rewardingly queer and knotty and carelessly intellectual; you have to think to catch up, and it’s the best thing Bosher could do for his audience.

He doesn’t neglect the play’s wit, either, because it is funny, often severely so. Minto and Whalley in particular live so easily in the sharp comic moments that the moments are never jarring, not even next to a fierce argument.

The lighting and sound design (by Michele Bauer and Jed Silver respectively) are effectively minimalist; this is play for actors that rejects artifice and glamour, and the technical design serves the thematic core of the play satisfyingly, with short bursts of music and a dramatic lighting change, just for a minute, to punctuate a scene change. It keeps our adrenalin up and our through-lines of thought processing clear.

Whalley, Minto, and Ridgway are the cast this play needs. We are lucky that they are our storytellers. They are the face of the force that reminds us that John can’t make a choice between them, because he doesn’t have the mental, emotional framework to do it. Because never in this world, the play and really the world we live in, is he given the opportunity to say without argument that he likes both men and women; that one declaration is crushed by M, who swiftly responds, “You can like both, but not at the same time.” M has been guiding John’s life for a long time; John is quieted, retracts this one thing he might have figured out about himself. John can’t even really own that he doesn’t know himself, and that’s the other prong, because M and W both think they do know who he is, and they tell John this, and who is he to argue? He doesn’t even recognise his own voice.

Brian Meegan has stepped in at the last minute to play M’s father, F,  and he is still on script, but he has figured out the world of the play and he fits seamlessly; already his performance is fully formed and deceptively simple.

There is so much about belonging and power and demand for oaths in this play that love becomes secondary. M is comfortably dominant and seems to be betrayed as much by John’s interest in W than he is by John doing something of which he does not expressly approve. F thinks John is inert and that is a sign of weakness; he has no real interest in reason or feeling. W is so sure of John’s feelings that she wants him to find his courage for them and believe in them as much as she does.

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley in COCK at the Old Fitz. Photo by Tim Levy.
Matt Minto and Michael Whalley in COCK at the Old Fitz. Photo by Tim Levy.

And it’s about identity, about people who don’t feel like real people yet, and people who felt real once and who don’t anymore, and about people who have never been anything but perfectly sure they are real.  It’s about how one facet of our lives both does and doesn’t reflect our greater inner truths. It’s about how complicated and exhausting it is to exist, about how life is a constant negotiation of rules that make no sense. It’s about frustration and loss and the search and fight to keep something, anything, that matters. It’s about agency, and John can’t find it.

John is so used to being powerless, a sketch in a fully-rendered world, and the only power he has, in the end, is his refusal to become.

It’s powerful, and Bosher’s production is powerful, and Red Line Productions are proving themselves, as the new curators of the Old Fitz, as a powerful voice in the independent theatre scene in Sydney.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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