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“Cock’s” Imaginary Sex and Violence

How the play finds power in suggestion

There are so many things missing: Props, costumes, lighting, sets. Even the seating banks are just unfinished plywood with a few cushions strewn around, leaving us no distractions from the actors in the middle of the room, ripping out their hearts in the name of love.

Sparseness is the point. With the familiar trappings of the theatre removed, Mike Bartlett’s bruising drama Cock reaches us with nothing but words, voices, and bodies. As director James Macdonald says, “Mike was shooting for a play in which only the essential, emotional things happen, and everything else was taken away.”

The play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court before moving Off Broadway to the Duke on 42nd Street, roils with “emotional things.” During a tumultuous time with his male partner, a man named John has an affair with a woman. Eventually, everyone finds out about everyone else, and they meet over a dinner party where John will choose a mate.

Macdonald enhances the conflict with stylized movement. Some of the play’s most physically intense moments—sex, fights, embraces—are suggested only with words. While they speak, the actors never touch at all. It’s the acting equivalent of the bare stage, with all the ornaments removed.

For Macdonald, who also directed the play in London, this is the only choice that makes sense. “We know what it’s like doing sex scenes in the theatre,” he says. “They’re generally counterproductive, aren’t they? You stop listening to the play because you’re watching people’s bodies, and the actors stop really acting because they’re having to fake something impossibly difficult to fake. It’s liberating to get away from that. It actually makes the sex more sexy.”

It also makes physical contact more meaningful. When the actors do occasionally kiss or fight, the interaction echoes in the room.

The seating also magnifies the impact. Those wooden risers are spaced around the action like the bleachers at a sporting arena. We can see the actors from every side, and they can see us, too.

Macdonald argues this layout reflects the entire spirit of the show. “The central metaphor is sport and fight, and so many fight arenas are in the round,” he says. “And [this seating arrangement] effortlessly creates more heat for the fight. You can feel the audience’s involvement and engagement with the characters fighting to defend their angle on things.”

He continues, “It’s palpable for the actors, and it’s initially a very scary thing for them to do, because wherever they look, there’s a sea of faces which they can see. So they have to remain incredibly focused on each other, and it raises the whole energy of the evening.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus

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5 comments

1 Spencer L. Snyder { 05.25.12 at 8:21 pm }

I saw “Cock” the evening show on 5/20 from the last row, that is, the
fourth. I totally agree with Mark’s comments but would add:
A bleep device was used to cut from one scene to the next. It was a
bit like acting school with the performers at a fast pace reacting off
each other. The actors stayed with it like lions in the Colisseum—
so it all worked.
The male-female sex was a circle that kept shrinking! So, this
intimate stage space was something like being in an elevator.
In general, the men in the audience often would laugh while the men/women couples seemed more personally caught up in the drama.
Good theater.

2 Mark Blankenship { 05.29.12 at 10:24 am }

Hi Spencer — Thank you for the reminder about the sound effect that marked the scene changes. It was a very important part of the mix, and for me, it almost sounded like the bell between rounds of a fight. Glad you saw and enjoyed the show! — Mark

3 marilyn { 07.02.12 at 1:02 pm }

i saw the show yesterday and enjoyed it very much. i’m really sorry, but i do not agree with you on the seating arrangements. sometimes it was difficult concentrating on the play because the seating was so uncomfortable and very hard on people’s backs, and people were complaining about it. also, i feel you can get more entrenched in the action of the play when the audience is not so visible which i feel tends to distract from the play because it’s difficult focusing on them at thimes. the actors were absolutely great and so was the story. good luck with your continued success. marilyn

4 Mark Blankenship { 07.02.12 at 1:57 pm }

Hi Marilyn — Thanks for your response to my story! You’re certainly right that not everyone will feel the same way about the seating, and I’m glad to hear your perspective. (I’m glad you enjoyed the show, too.) — Mark (Editor of TDF Stages)

5 TDF Stages Exchange: Words, Voice and Bodies Convey the Message Alone | Breaking Character { 08.15.14 at 12:22 pm }

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