Wednesday, 30 December 2009

TOP 10

Now that my 2009 theatergoing is over (yes, I am going to make in until January 2 without seeing anything!), I can decide on my picks for the best of London theater in 2010, which was a very good year for new plays.
1. THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN. Actually 14 plays in one day by osme of the best British playwrights performed by a very strong acting ensemble. Tricycle Theatre
2. WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING by Andrew Upton. Almeida Theatre.
3. JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth. Royal Court
4. ENRON by Lucy Prebble. Chichester Theatre Festival
5. TUSK TUSK by Poly Stenham. Royal Court
6. PORNOGRAPHY by Simon Stephens. Tricycle Theatre.
7. COCK by Mike Bartlett. Royal Court Theatre
8. BE NEAR ME by Ian McDairmid. Donmar Warehouse, co-production with National Theatre of Scotland.
9. THE HABIT OF ART by Alan Bennett. National Theatre
10. WIG OUT by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. Royal Court Theatre

I find at this stage of my life that I am less interested in seeing revivals, particularly of plays I have seen before (yes, even Shakespeare!) than I am in seeing new work. Nonetheless, in no particular order of preference, here is my list of the most impressive revivals of 2009
TIME AND THE CONWAYS by J.B. Priestley directed by Rupert Goold. National Theatre.
AS YOU LIKE IT, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Shakespeare's Globe
WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett, directed by Sean Mathias
ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard, directed by David Leveaux
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams, directed by Debbie Allen
Although the productions weren't earth shaking, I was happy to see revivals of Terrence Rattigan's THE WINSLOW BOY (Rose Theatre, Kingston) and Noel Coward's A SONG AT TWILIGHT (Richmond Theatre)


A new Alan Bennett play is always an occasion in London. THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE and HISTORY BOYS had long, sellout runs and went on to be films. His new play, THE HABIT OF ART, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre as usual is the hottest ticket in London right now and will go out into movie theaters around the world as a high definition telecast in April. Last night's audience was filled with leading theater and television actors and directors.
At the heart of this rich, complex, funny play is a 1972 meeting in Oxford between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in Auden's unkempt Oxford flat. Auden, celebrated for his poetry of an earlier era, is now an eminence but no longer the poet he once was. He lives more on pontificating than poetry. On this particular day he awaits a visit from a rent boy, but instead Humphrey Carpenter, who will eventually write biographies of both Auden and Britten, arrives on his doorstep, eager to interview the poet for the local BBC station. After visits from Carpenter and the rent boy, Britten arrives, rekindling a friendship that he severed decades before. Lonely and frightened, Britten wants moral support in the writing of his new opera, DEATH IN VENICE, a work which deals more overtly with Britten's repressed pedophilia than any of his other works. Auden wants to rewrite the libretto to make it more direct, closer to Britten's own predilections: Britten basically wants someone to tell him he's on the right track.
Somewhere in the revising of his work, Bennett decided that the play needed a means of questioning its own assumptions. Now this meeting between Auden and Britten is presented as the rehearsal of the play. The actors portray actors playing Britten, Auden, Carpenter, the rent boy and others. We see the prcoess of them questioning their characters as they go through their own artistic process. Some of the play we see them rehearse is powerful, some downright pretentious and silly. So we watch a work of art, the play, recreate an artistic process, the rehearsal, which presents the meeting of two great artists, poet and composer, who discuss their own artistic process. Bennett, with Tom Stoppard the most gifted of his generation of living writers, makes all this work.
At the heart of the play is the intersection of art, sex and mortality. A lot of the discussion of Auden and Britten is about their sexual predilections. We see the encounter of Auden with a rent boy and, provoking some nervous coughing from audience members, a candid discussion of Britten's love for boys. Along with his partner, Peter Pears, boys are Britten's source of inspiration. For Auden, the rent boy is a business transaction without even sexual satisfaction. If love for boys is at the heart of Britten's work, desire for young men is at the heart of Bennett's recent plays. The relationship between teacher and male student in HISTORY BOYS is partly sexual. The most powerful scene in the play is young Dakin's attempt to seduce his teacher. Here the rent boy becomes a focal character. He is supposed the stand naked at the end of the play, a Caliban, the ordinary non-intellectual person. He wants his place in the story recognized: "There's always someone left out. You all have a map. I don't have a map. I don't even know what I don't know. I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know." Auden responds: No. You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know any more. You want what Caliban always wants.: you want to be knowing." At the end Henry, the character playing Britten, wants to leave with the actor playing the rent boy. Life and sex go on. The place of flesh in art is one of Bennett's concerns here, particularly for old men. The playwright in this fictional rehearsal is a young man, but this is a play only an older man could write, about age, sex and what the dying body does to the imagination. Fitz, the actor playing Auden complains that the play's focus on Auden's physicality -- peeing in the sink, discussing cocks with the rent boy -- diminishes the poet, but it is the humanity of these figures, warts and all, that interests Bennett. The filthy, farting Auden is a contrast to the immaculate, uptight Britten. Auden discusses sex with the rent boy: Britten discusses music with him. Of course, the rent boy knows a lot about sex and nothing about music.
DEATH IN VENICE is a great work in part because it is so close to Britten's own experience of unrequited desire. The music has both a yearning quality and a sense of constraint, as if it constantly wants to break free. It is perfect for the story as Britten imagined it. Britten died shortly after completing it in the arms of his long time partner, Peter Pears, for whom the role of Aschenbach was written.
THE HABIT OF ART is given an impaccable production. The setting is a replica of one of the National's large rehearsal rooms with a playwood mock up of the play's setting in the center. There is no conventional theatrical lighting, only harsh rehearsal light. Richard Griffiths who had such a success with HISTORY BOYS, plays Auden (the part was supposed to be played by Michael Gambon, but illness forced him out of the production early on in the rehearsal period). For me, watching Griffiths onstage poses problems. He's fine in the part, but one has to deal with his grotesquely obese physical appearance. I find him such a physical turnoff that it distracts me from his performance and the play. Ah, the erotics of theater! Alex Jennings is fine as Henry, the slightly effeminate gay actor playing Britten. Frances de la Tour, who can do wry better than any other living actress, plays the all-knowing stage manager who gets the last word, a lovely speech in celebration of theater. Stephen Wight is charming as the overly idealized rent boy -- the play and the production need to give the character a few more rough edges.
At one point I thought about how a British audience can appreciate this rather graphic (in language) play about gay men and wondered how it will fare in Puritanical America. Yet Bennett's approach to homosexuality is not without its vexations. One of the most intelligent (and talented) British actors I know was infuriated by HISTORY BOYS, on one hand a play focusing on repressed and openly gay characters but without the possibility of happiness of fulfillment in a same-sex relationship. This actor was sitting a few rows in front of me at THE HABIT OF ART and I wonder if this pleased him more. After all, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were in long term relationships with men who were creative partners as well as domestic partners. Chester Kallman collaborated with Auden on the libretto of Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, now a repertory staple, as well as other works. Pears was Britten's chief interpreter (I had trouble with Britten's operas at first because I didn't like Pears's voice or mannered style -- it was a revelation to hear other tenors in the roles Pears initiated) and his companion for almost forty years. They are buried together. One assumes these relationships brought some love and joy to these men, but there is no hint of it in the play. Instead we are presented with lonely men whose only desire is for youth. This is a distortion of the truth of these men's lives which is unfair to these men, to gay men in general and to the audience.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009


The Young Vic Theatre, founded in the 1960s as an alternative to the National theatre, then in residence at the Old Vic down the road, was intended to be a more alternative, experimental space. In recent years it has been difficult to glean an artistic philosophy as the theater was renovated including a second smaller auditorium and a large bar/restaurant that dominates the front of the building (eating and drinking seem to have been the priority in many of the theater renovations in London from the Royal Opera House to Off West End spaces like the Old Vic and Almeida Theatres). But what is the Young Vic now? The best new plays go to the Royal Court, the Bush, the Almeida or, to a lessser degree, the National (Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner does not have the best taste in new scripts). The Young Vic productions I have most admired in recent years have demonstrated a more radical approach to production that sometimes questions exactly what a theater is and what the relationship of performance and audience might be.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, the corny 1946 Irving Berlin/Herbert and Dorothy Fields musical, written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, would seem an odd choice for a production rethinking theater, but Richard Jones, known and often vilified for his radical productions of theater and opera has given the slight musical a different approach. Jones loves to challenge one's sense of the stage space. Here he has reduced it to a low, wide, narrow "CinemaScope" size. The basic setting is a
1950s diner somewhere in Ohio, but this mythical Ohio has cactus. The furnishings of this tacky diner are used to create a railroad train and steamship with the help of a ocnveyor belt with miniature scenery traveling along its path. Wagon wheel ceiling lights like those one might find in an old steakhouse are raised and lowered like the chandeliers at the Met when the lights are dimmed. The proscenium is broken as actors also move into the theater itself. Jones often likes pushing the action as far downstage as possible and this shallow playing area removes much use of depth. There's a small hotel room above the stage used in the first and last scene. The walls of the theater are painted American flag red, white and blue. Lighting is not at all illusionistic. Clever film is used at the beginning of each act. There are a lot of clever effects, but no illusion of versimilitude. Once one accepts Jones's conventions, one can enjoy their cleverness.
Scrawny blond Jane Horrocks is the opposite of Ethel Merman. She specializes in playing strange characters and her Annie is certainly strange. Horrocks has an idiosyncratic, mannered performance style, but so did Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bernadette Peters and Reba McIntyre -- the other famous Annies. Merman, Martin and Peters were creatures of the stage. None have had successful film careers in part because, already "larger than life", their performances did not work magnified even more on screen. Their singing styles were unique, unlike the bland homogenized sound of the kiddies on Glee. Horrocks's performance is in the tradition of past musical divas. It's a bit demented at times, but so were some of the divas of the past (Carol Channing, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley). It would not be to everyone's taste, but she looks the part and sings well enough. Annie is a cartoon character after all. Annie was originally tailored to Merman's considerable ego -- of course she thought she was the best shot -- but Horrocks is able to make Annie's self ocnfidence part of a larger character. In a way, she's the traditional "can do" American spirit. Julian Ovendon is gorgeous and sings beautifully.
The book has been doctored to remove potentially offensive racial stereotypes. Annie does not sing "I'm an Indian Too." Instead Sitting Bull shoots the loudspeaker when the song starts playing. And the ending in which Annie throws her shooting match so she can get her man is made less a woman's duty and more about male ego. There's no development of the romance between her and Frank, but that was always a problem with the book. Merman couldn't play love scenes.
The four pianos that provide the accompaniment make a wonderful sound.
Show queen friends of mine hate this production. Like the packed audience in the Young Vic last night, I enjoyed it. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is not one of the greatest musicals ever written (Oh, if only Dorothy Fields had written the lyrics as originally planned -- Berlin's lyrics tend to be generic and there's one too many comic patter songs) so why not find a new way to see it?

Monday, 28 December 2009


The tiny, claustrophobic Menier Chocolate Factory theater has been the setting for musical revivals that have moved on to the West End and Broadway. The brilliant SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and now A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC have been the best revivals of Sondheim's work since Sam Mendes's Donmar productions and the National Theatre revivals in the 90s. I hated the tacky Menier revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but it did move on to the West End with osme success and is scheduled for Broadway this winter. No self respecting drag artist would wear the dowdy, ill-fitting costumes dreamed up for this version.
Now the Menier is serving up a revival of the Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields 1966 show SWEET CHARITY which was one of the last solid, old fashioned book musicals created as a star vehicle. SWEET CHARITY was one of a series of musicals created for the unique talents of Gwen Verdon (DAMN YANKEES, NEW GIRL IN TOWN, REDHARD preceded it, all choreographed by Bob Fosse who was, for a while, Verdon's husband). Verdon was inimitable. Like most Broadway divas, she wasn't conventionally beautiful. She had a decent singing voice, great comic timing but most of all, she was a terrific dancer with a radiant stage perosnality. She wasn't a cartoon like Carol Channing or a one tick pony like Ethel Merman. You went to see her shows in great part because she was in them. During yesterday's fine performance of SWEET CHARITY, I still heard Verdon. Clearly the Charity, Tamsin Outhwaite had listen to the original cast recording -- she tried to capture that throaty uqaver that was Verdon's singing style -- and some of Stephen Mear's choreography for Charity came from watching Fosse's original. Outhwaite carried the show with the help of Mark Umbers who played all of Charity's lovers. She didn't light up the stage as stars like Verdon did, but was fine for the small Menier. Originally neurotic Oscar was played by the terminally bland John McMartin. the much more talented Mark Umbers made him a real human being and, as always sang beautifully.
Everyone in the company was fine. Matthew White's staging was clever. Mears's choreography wasn't up to Fosse's level but was highly enjoyable. The band was great. Most important, the show still works. though Cy Coleman's score is one of the best of 1960s musicals, I was most impressed with the virtuosity of Dorothy Fields's witty lyrics. I had never put SWEET CHARITY in my pantheon of great musicals, but this production came close to changing my mind.


It is a shame that there seems to be little room for new plays either on Broadway or the West End unless they are cast (or miscast) with big name television or film stars. Revivals have name recognition, in addition to the name recognition of the stars who justify them. Curently in Londn we have Moliere's THE MISANTHROPE with Keira Knightly, and Ian McKellan in WAITING FOR GODOT returning after a three month sellout run. And, fresh from Broadway, Debbie Allen's all Black production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, Phylicia Rashad (Allen's sister) as Big Mama (very much a uspporting role), and British stage and television star Adrian Lester as Brick. with young American actress Sanaa Latham as Maggie. CAT keeps being revived. There was a superb production here in London a few years ago with Brendan Fraser a very touching Brick. It is an American classic, but who is the current or future Tennessee Williams?
CAT is a masterpiece of ocndensation. The play takes place over two hours in one setting. None of the short attention span cutting between short scenes that has vitiated the emotional impact of so many contemporary plays. Theater isn't film or television and great drama can develop a conflict in long paragraphs rather than short sentences. The twenty-plus minute scene between Big Daddy and Brick is an example of the power of a long, intense scene.
CAT is such a well wrought play that the updating to the 1980s and the change from 1950s Southern white nouveau riche to African-American characters doesn't affect it much at all. James Earl Jones is a great, towering Big Daddy, Lester a fine Brick trying desperately to remove himself from his surroundings and numb himself from his self-hatred, and Latham hits all the right buttons as Maggie: beautiful, sexy, funny, desperate, irritating and brave. There were things I had never seen before in other productions of CAT -- Brick's compassionate (as opposed to vengeful) telling his father the truth about his illness, for instance. And, finally, a Brick who really acted drunk after drinking ocnstantly throughout the play. Lester made Brick's sexuality less ambiguous than Ian Charleson or Brendan Fraser did in recent London productions, but his Brick is a man who simply doesn't know what to do about any sexuality -- an "ass-aching Puritan", as Maggie calls him.
Like all of Williams's work, CAT is about sex and mortality -- how we deal with our sexual desire and how we face death. In the greatest scene in the play between Big Daddy and Brick, the two come together. Brick admits that Skipper's feelings for him weren't so pure (Brick's ideal is a sexless male friendship) and that he, in his typical passice-aggressive style, cuts off the friend who loved and needed him because he oculdn't deal with the reality of homosexuality as he has cut off his wife for wanting him and Skipper to face the truth; and Big Daddy faces his terminal cancer and the end of his life. Beside these big issues, the squabbling over inheritance seems petty. Big Daddy tells Brick that man is the only animal that knows he is going to die. Everything in Williams follows from that.
So Tennessee Williams has been well served this year in London -- a fine STREETCAR with Rachel Weisz and an intense, often appropriately funny CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Since 1993 the Royal National Theatre has mounted a holiday family show. This is not the usual mindless pantomime, but a spectacular production of an adaptation of a book written for young people aimed at over 12s and adults. They began with a six hour, two part adaptation of Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS (a holiday show that attacked organized religion!). After running that for two sold out seasons, they mounted MELLY STILL's inventive production of CORAM BOY, followed by WAR HORSE, their biggest hit which has moved on to a sold out run on the West End. This year's production, Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's NATION has not been so well received by critics and is not the sellout hit previous shows have been. Nonetheless it is a beautiful, inventive production (Melly Still again).
NATION is politically tricky which has put off some of the critics. In the height of the British Empire a girl is shipwrecked on an island. There she becomes friends with a boy who has become chief after many of his tribe have been killed by a tsunami. So proper British girl and native boy have adventures together and the girl discovers that the native civilization has its own ancient culture established long before England was inhabited. The whites who survive the shipwreck are the violent, destructive ones and the natives sing and dance. All politically correct but still reinforcing stereotypes. If one can get beyond that, the production is beautiful to behold with terrific "underwater" aerial effects. Melly Still is great at creating theatrical effects very simply. The cast (no NT stars) is fine and the original score is music is enjoyable but forgettable.
Nowhere near the excellence of CORAM BOY or WAR HORSE but perfectly enjoyable.

NATION by Mark Ravenhill from the novel by Terry Pratchett. Directed by Melly Still, designed by Melly Still with Mark Friend; costumes designed by Dinah Collin; puppets designed by Yvonne Stone. Royal National Theatre. December 21, 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Recent opera productions in London made me think about what makes a successful realization of a classic piece of musical theater. The tendency in Europe is to "revise" opera -- to assume that an audience knows a work well and the director can set it anywhere or present it as a more abstract theater piece. Christof Loy's LULU at the Royal Opera last spring was such a work. Loy so stripped the work of any decor or narrative that it was little more than a concert.
Rufus Goold's recent TURANDOT at the English National Opera certainly wasn't minimalist, but it filled the stage with so many peripheral details that audience members were so busy trying to figure out what was going on that the opera got lost in the shuffle. No storybook ancient Peking here. Instead we were in a contemporary London Chinese restaurant, the "Imperial Palace", where there seemed to be a costume party going on. Chorus members were dressed as Elvis impersonators, drag queens, Margaret Thatcher lookalikes. In he midst of this, a hyperactive writer seemed to be imagining the story of Turandot and turning partygoers into the characters in the opera. The opera had more to do with Rupert Goold than Puccini or his librettists and I defy anyone to tell me what three Elvis impersonators had to do with anything. There were some good moments; for instance, Ping, Pang and Pong, the chefs, sitting on a fire escape in the first scene of the second act.
In the midst of all this, the singing was mediocre. Turandot was loud, period. Liu could not sing softly -- a requirement for that role. Only the tenor singing Calaf seemed appropriately cast. The orchestra was -- loud.
Earlier that week, I saw Deborah Warner's staging of THE MESSIAH at the English National Opera. In one sense, Warner was doing the impossible -- THE MESSIAH is not inherently theatrical -- but I found Warner's attempt at giving the work contemporary relevance deeply moving and the most religious presentation of the work in or out of a church I have seen. Warner took the words seriously and make one think about what they meant. I am not a believer in the resurrection of the body, but Warner's production made me want to believe.
This was a contemporary setting with solists and chorus looking like they just walked in from the street. The Christmas section centered on children, the passion on Christ and the final section on the citizenry dying and being reborn as the trumpet sounded. The chorus sang and moved brilliantly and the soloists were excellent singers and actors. At the performance I saw, ailing tenor John Mark Ainsley was replaced by a young Irish tenor, Eamonn Mulwell. He had a lovely voice, good looks and superb stage presence. Lawrence Cummings directed the ENO orchestra as if they were an original instrument group -- virtually no vibrato.
The Royal Opera revived its decades old production of DER ROSENKAVALIER originally directed by the late film director John Schlesinger. To contemporary eyes, this is an old fashioned production that reminded me of the Met production of the fifties and sixties. However old the production is, it tells the story effectively (the first thing I ask of any production). This production boasted the best Marschalin I have ever seen or heard, the Finnish soprano Soile Iskowski. What a great singing actress she is -- I couldn't take my eyes off her expressive face during Act I. The other leads were fine, though the conducting (Kiril Petrenko) was coarse and the horns, so crucial to this score, having an off night.


Plays about the making of art are always tricky. How does one dramatize what goes on in an artist's head? How to balance the audience in the know about an artist with those who may know little or nothing? One can be overly specialized or dumb down to the lowest common denominator as Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS did with Mozart -- only a person who cared nothing about Mozart could make it through that play. John Logan's RED creates the proper balance. For those of us who know something about the life and work of Mark Rothko, this play imaginatively and convincingly takes us inside the artist's mind. For the rest, the play is a fascinating character study and an arresting conflict between an older and younger man. The older man (Rothko) plays the role of patriatch, mentor, critic and bully to a younger, aspiring artist who is his assistant, but the younger man more than holds his own. Rothko's hermetic studio is the only environment in which the brooding, angst-ridden artist feels in control. It is his world in which he slowly and painstakingly conceives of his paintings which he fears no one will understand. For him, they are dark psychodramas: for those who can afford them, they will be decor. The young man is a fan of the younger generation of artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg.
Each scene in RED is a kind of battle, for Rothko sees himself as an Ahab battling dark forces within and without. The young man, who has suffered genuine tragedy in his short life, is more resilient. Without resilience and a fighting spirit, he could never survive two years as Rothko's assistant. During the course of the play Rothko is creating the large paintings commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram's Building in New York. We know that he will ultimately refuse to have the paintings hanging there where they will indeed be mere decor for the rich patrons drinking and dining there. In this version, it is the young man who confronts him with the irony of pacing his paintings in such a commercial venue. It could never be the temple of art he wants it to be.
RED is beautifully written and a great vehicle for actors. Alfred Molina is excellent as the hulking, brooding Rothko and the gifted Eddie Redmayne, an intense, highly physical actor, as his young assistant and antagonist. The Donmar Warehouse stage was convincingly turned into an artist's loft. All in all an intense, play brilliantly directed (Can Michael Grandage do otherwise) and acted.
RED by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage, designed by Christopher Oram. Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. December 19, 2009.


The title of Mike Bartlett's intriguing new play at the Royal Court's small upstairs space is certainly provocative, if not necessarily appropriate. It isn't really about sex.
COCK is a pared down four character play presented, at the author's request, without sets, furniture or props. The space has been converted into a kind of mini arena, a circular space with the audience on cushioned benches looking down at a small, bare playing area. We watch a series of psychological battles over a young man who admits he doesn't know who he is or what he wants. In a very telling speech, he remembers that when he was young, he loved to imitate other people's voices, but when he was finished, he couldn't remember his own voice He survives by being what people want him to be at any particular moment.
John (Ben Whishaw playing the only character given a name) is in a seven year, turbulent relationship with his partner (Andrew Scott). Said partner often voices his frustration at John's total fecklessness. At the beginning of the play, John is moving toward breaking up with his partner, but such a definite decision with lasting consequences is beyond him. In the brief hiatus in their relationship, John starts an affair with a twenty-eight-year-old divorcee (Katherine Paarkinson), his first with a woman. Said woman is even more needy and manipulative than John's male partmer and John yoyos back and forth between the two, being, to put it mildly, less than honest about his feelings. He tells her that he wants to leave his partner (not totally true) and tells his partner than his girlfriend is very masculine (definitely not true). At a dinner from hell, John's partner and girlfriend fight it out over him (with the help of partner's father who has been called in for reinforcement) and try to get him to make a decision. Girlfriend offers him a "normal life" with a doting wife, kids, and family Christmas which she thinks trumps anything the partner can offer. Partner offers him basically anything he wants, including adopted children, as long as he'll stay in the relationship, but John has no idea what he wants. The father keeps saying "Decide who your are," which is exactly what John can't do. Of course, John finally decides on what is easiest.
The question is not so much why John is the way he is as why this man and woman want to be paired up with him. Their neediness, their hunger to have a partner and settled life even if the partner is, as they both admit, a mess, is the saddest aspect of the play. In this battle between partner and girlfriend, no one can win anything worth having.
Ben Whishaw is excellent as the cipher. Scrawny, homely, messy and with a tendency to collapse into a heap on the floor, he captures John's emptiness, his narcissism and his flashes of cruelty. As his partner, Andrew Scott, as usual, comes close to acting everyone else off the stage. He is one of the most fascinating actors working in British and Irish theater. If only the director had found an actress who could be a worthy adversary for Scott. Katherine Parkinson has made her name playing the stupid, inept, goofy receptionist on the tv sitcom DOC MARTIN. She comes close to playing the same character here. She simply isn't up to being on the stage stage with Whishaw and Scott and this throws the play a bit off balance. They seem to love acting: she seems to be doing a job.
What most critics first notice about COCK is that it is a reversal of the common formula for gay drama in which a married man finds he is in love with another man and the wife fights a losing battle to get him back. However, sexual orientation is not the issue here. John recalls at one point that coming out at university suddenly gave him an identity. It may not have totally fit, but it was something. This is a picture of a total mess (his girlfriend says that she can see space garbage circling around his head) and the needy, lonely people foolish enough to settle for such a mess of pottage.
Bartlett's writing is spare, funny, but deeply sad at the core. The story may verge on sitcom at times but Bartlett never lets the play go there. He tries to balance particularity with universality. The fact that John's partner and girlfriend aren't given names suggests a generic rather than particular reading and there is a tendency to stereotype -- the gay partner is well educated, financially comfortable, collects art, cooks well has a powerful sense of irony and a gift for bitchiness. At the same time he seems a more specific and sympathetic character than the woman, but that is partly because of what Andrew Scott brings to him.
This is a character study of profoundly lost, lonely people with brilliant acting from the gifted male leads.
COCK by Mike Bartlett, directed by James MacDonald, designed by Miriam Buethner. At the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott, Katherine Parkinson and Paul Jesson. December 19, 2009.