Notes on Cock

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shapeimage_1Glad to see Studio 180 Theatre’s Cock last night. (Did that come out right?)

Mike Bartlett’s play, an import from London, centres around a young guy who identifies as gay and is in a long-term relationship with a man, meets a woman he likes and sleeps with her, and has to choose between lovers.

Early scenes feel by turns expository and less than lifelike, the conflicts hyper-charged and overly explicit about theme, but they soon give way to the play’s compelling centrepiece: a dinner party where the protagonist and his two lovers negotiate their situation, its possibilities. The writing here has a subtextual layering that snapped me back to attention, drew me in, the conflict not essentialized into a head-on collision between two opposed parties but diffuse, plural, subterranean.

This kind of subtext-loaded Chekovian realism seems to be ubiquitous in New York and especially London — maybe too much so, over-familiar, numbing — but I sometimes crave more of it in Canadian playwriting. It gives the audience credit, makes them work to discern what’s at stake and how and why, what currents run beneath the scene. It feels like life, where in an argument between lovers (even just two lovers!) there’s bound to be at least half a dozen agendas at work.

So I admired the craft of Cock, at least for one long stretch of it, as it were. I question whether it’s as loaded a play of ideas as it purports to be. It makes a rather melodramatic (not to mention old-fashioned) assumption that a person’s identity suffers an essential fragmentation if he can’t get all his sexual needs met in one place. It never addresses alternatives to monogamy. The play’s central problem — which lover will the young dude choose, and how will he understand who he is in light of that choice? — is treated by the characters as a painful but straightforward either/or.

The three central characters are fairly well developed and the play is sometimes compelling as a character drama, with insights into co-dependent and co-destructive behavior in long relationships, but I’m not sure it says much that’s new about bisexuality or queer identity or how we shape our notions of self through sex. It suggests that sexuality is the single most important locus of identity and identity confusion, which feels like an overstatement. There’s so much else — privilege or deprivation, race, vocation, family — to get shaped and confused by. And to lend contour to drama.

Still, lots of interesting questions raised by this witty, smart work! Check it out if you can, at The Theatre Centre‘s gorgeous new digs.

This entry first appeared on Facebook on April 9, 2014.

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