Cock by Mike Bartlett

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BBC Radio 3, 20 November 2011
Described in Radio 3's publicity as "an acclaimed and uncompromising play," first presented at London's Royal Court Theatre in October 2009, Cock was divided into three distinct movements. In the first of these, John (Ben Whishaw) admitted to his long-standing boyfriend M (Andrew Scott), that he had fallen for a woman; predictably M's reacted with a mixture of jealousy and resentment. As the two men sparred verbally with each other, I was reminded of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with two utterly self-absorbed protagonists talking yet refusing to listen to one another. Bartlett's dialogue was beautifully structured as a series of dialogues beginning slowly and coming to a series of crescendos as M tried to make sense of what John had done.
In the second movement John discussed his relationship with girlfriend W (Katherine Parkinson). He veered between acceptance and rejection: while finding W sexually as well as emotionally attractive, he could not acknowledge the complexities of his sexuality. Although promising loyalty towards her, we were not convinced that he meant what he said.
Our suspcions were confirmed in the play's third, and climactic movement, as the three protagonists came together for a dinner-party at M's house, to be joined by M's father F (Paul Jesson). The dialogue began as a two-way tussle for John's affections, with M pouring scorn both John and W. The introduction of F into the action contained strong echoes of Look Back in Anger: as a representative of a different generation, F tried to seem 'reasonable' to everyone, but actually revealed his prejudices. He could not come to terms with the complexities of sexuality; that people can love men and women simultaneously. The play ended with John trying - and ultimately failing - to make up his mind as to whether to choose M or W.
Cock examines stereotypes of sexuality, and how individuals find themselves oppressed by them. Both M and W expect John to declare whether he is either 'gay' or 'heterosexual;' he cannot be allowed to embrace both constructions, however contradictory that might be. Since the Enlightenment, western societies have trusted in binary oppositions: men/ women, west/east, homosexual/heterosexual, and so on. Anyone who challenges these oppositions is perceived as "deviant" - an interesting irony, in view of the fact that homosexuality was perceived in much the same way in British society until it was legalized in 1968.
In the publicity for the radio production, we were warned that "the play contains the strongest language." In truth, most of this language was devoid of meaning: as M, W, and F revealed how much they were imprisoned by their own sexual prejudices. The only way to understand John's plight was to look beneath the words; every pause, every hesitation, every mumbled apology ("sorry") made us aware of the strains he was undergoing.
James Macdonald's spellbinding production (reproduced for radio by Mary Peate) seemed ideal for the radio medium, forcing us to concentrate on the words and their (lack of) meaning. I look forward to hearing more of Mike Bartlett's work.