Cock: a play with real importance

talks to the cast and crew of Battered Soul Theatre’s upcoming production of ‘Cock’.

Cock definitely wins the prize for the production with the most eye-catching title this term, but on top of this accolade audiences can expect a completely different dramatic experience. I talked to the cast and crew of Battered Soul Theatre’s production of Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play as they challenge notions of sexuality, gender and dramatic conventions.

The play focuses on the dilemma faced by gay twenty-something John (Theo Holt-Bailey), torn between his long-term boyfriend (Owen Sparkes) and an unexpected attraction to a woman (Dannie Harris). Neither of John’s lovers are named on stage; they are represented as M and W in the script, presumably standing for ‘man’ and ‘woman’. “A name is just a label, and a name to Bartlett doesn’t mean that much in a person,” explains director Jenny Walser.

According to Harris, neither do notions of gender. “They’ve put themselves into those boxes,” she says. When I tentatively suggest that issues of gender and sexuality are contentious ground for a production, Holt-Bailey says that this is missing the point. “Thinking too hard about it, ironically, wouldn’t be in the spirit of the play,” he suggests. “Mike Bartlett’s point by the end seems to be that your sexuality doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. It’s who the people are and what they do for you.”

Aside from its refreshingly modern take on sexuality, Cock demands an unconventional staging. Bartlett specifies at the beginning of his script that there was to be no set, no props and no miming. “We’ve got completely naturalistic acting (I hope!), paired with completely non-naturalistic staging,” explains Walser. “Bartlett wanted the whole focus of the scene to be on the acting and the emotions of the characters, not necessarily what they’re actually doing with their bodies.” The result during the rehearsal is mesmerising. “If they’re saying a line that’s forceful and attacking, they can move directly towards the person,” Walser tells me, “but if there was a dinner table in the way, they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Whilst rehearsals for a lot of shows begin with blocking and movement, Walser was keen to take a different approach. “If the voice work was there,” she says, “then the blocking for me came second to that.” Holt-Bailey tells me about the early rehearsals. “We’d read it through, and Jenny would have notes for us just from the read-through,” he recalls. “Then we’d spend a bit of time discussing what we thought the characters were meaning in the dialogue, and trying to work out the emotions behind the lines and how to read them naturally.”

Character work was crucial, and Walser describes working with the cast to develop their characters’ back stories. “We’d start off with ‘what’s your [character’s] favourite colour,’ she says, “and suddenly get into the really deep, nitty gritty.” Even now, the cast’s characterisation is constantly developing and changing in unexpected ways. “That character’s still growing all the time,” says Sparkes of M. “In last night’s rehearsal we changed a scene completely, and changed what his character was like in it, and it was brilliant.”

For me, the most compelling thing about watching the rehearsal was the way the talented cast used Bartlett’s dialogue to deliver performances that make other theatre look contrived and artificial. “It’s exactly how a normal person would speak,” says Sparkes, and this naturalism gives rise to unusual humour. “The best part of the comedy is that the characters are never trying to be funny,” says Holt-Bailey. “The lines are never delivered knowingly. They just say the most bizarre things sometimes and it is very funny.”

Just like real people, the characters fluctuate and never command our sympathy or disapproval for long. “Each and every character has moments where you see a real vulnerability, and it surprises you,” described Walser. “I don’t know whether anyone will have a real side at the end.” Sparkes found himself embracing this ambiguity in his portrayal of M. “It’s very easy to play him very much as a very nasty character,” he says, “and it’s very satisfying to do that and be a bit of an antagonist. Actually, if you really delve into the script, you see a lot of vulnerability there.”

Usually when I’m previewing, I only watch ten to twenty minutes of the rehearsal to get a flavour of the performance. With Cock, I stayed to watch a whole run through. It was like nothing I have ever seen before, and I could not leave before John was forced to choose between M and W. Walser is spot on in saying that the play will “keep you guessing until the end,” and throughout you can feel the strain John is going through, and the strain he is putting on others. What’s more, audiences will leave with new ideas about gender and sexuality. “It’s a play with a real importance,” concludes Holt-Bailey. He couldn’t be more right.

‘Cock’ will be performed from Sat 28 Nov until Mon 30 Nov in the Horsfall Room, St. Chad’s College. Book your tickets here.

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