Review: An uncomfortable feeling

24 March 2016

by Aenne Pallasca

apocalyptic-genderpunk

"Honestly, people treat bisexuality like Schrödinger's Cat: we're both gay and straight until they see us dating, and then we become one or the other."

NSDF is a wonderful thing. A bizarre bubble consistent of panda hugs, ego boosts and group therapy, a place both so down-to-earth and off-hook at the same time, a time to sit and listen and talk and listen some more and talk some more. In this spirit, Battered Soul Theatre’s Cock truly hits home with many festgoers. Its tale of a young man’s self-discovery has made the show one of the most praised and most discussed productions this week.

But NSDF is not only a place of warmth and compassion. The festival has its raw edges, a lot of potential for heated debates and a tendency to throw you into an unexpected turmoil of emotions. Which served me well tonight, because of all things, Cock left me utterly angry and confused.

Cock is a curious piece. It seems to make a lot of people want to exert crude violence towards one or more characters. But if there is someone I would want to punch in the face, it’s probably Mike Bartlett. My enjoyment of Cock’s superficially very relatable self-finding story, infused with a probing insight into human sexuality, was hampered by its underlying currents of hostility. While ostensibly waving the flag for bisexuality or even an abolition of labels entirely, the play, seven years after its first performance, misses fine-tweaking and self-reflection.

The deeply internalised biphobia, transphobia and misogyny of the gay community is one of the largest unaddressed and unrecognised issues among gay men. Effeminateness is feared, and so is any deviance from a strong gay pride. Perhaps intentionally, the problem finds its personification in John’s boyfriend M, and to a lesser extent, in the other characters. Throw some biological determinism (the belief that genes, essentially, determine your life, including your gender and sexuality) into the mix, and you get a play that erases many identities for the sake of advocating one or two sexual preferences. You get Cock.

In its outlook on sexuality and gender, Bartlett’s piece feels incredibly dated. There is the worn out excuse-turned-joke about the sole female character being "manly" (or not) – including some rude comments aiming at her assumed genitalia – which launches into a full-on assault on femininity. And there is John, possibly coming to terms with his bisexuality, or some other identity, which is regarded as scarier than his abusive relationship with M.

I felt almost awkwardly silent, sitting in the front row in the bright, intimate space of SJT’s rehearsal room, rarely laughing at the uncomfortable jokes when everyone else was visibly and audibly highly entertained. But to me, Owen Sparkes’ presentation of M as sometimes bubbly, sometimes whiny, always screamingly GAY! didn’t make the play any wittier or sharper. Instead, the character and Sparkes’ interpretation became part of the problem. Like in any goofy sitcom – and the audience in this performance certainly might just as well have been watching an episode of Will & Grace for how they reacted – the gay character is expected to deliver the funniest lines. And hey, if it comes from a voice from a minority, how could that voice be possibly offensive towards any minority?

In a discussion with a friend who saw the play with me, she suggested that it may have been Bartlett’s intention to address this elephant in the room. However, at no point did the writing feel sharp or poignant enough to really kick in. Instead, it became a matter of ridicule, gratefully picked up by Battered Soul Theatre to go for some cheap laughs, and just as happily accepted by the audience.

What remains is the uneasy feeling of being aware of a conflict mostly ignored by or unknown to the large public. And yet, where would be a better place to change some minds than at NSDF? Where, if not at a festival where LGBTQ is warmly welcomed? Tonight, a piece of student theatre made me feel very uncomfortable, and I am actually happy about this. Let’s get the conversation going. Let’s sit and listen and talk, and listen some more, and talk some more.

Photo credit: Guilia Deprato