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A CurtainUp London Review
Ben Whishaw plays John, the ultimate ambivalent man who mostly lives happily in a homosexual relationship with M (Andrew Scott) until he accidentally meets and has sex with a woman, W (Katherine Parkinson). From then on John vacillates between staying with the man and leaving to be with the woman.
John is agonised. The decision between the two relationships is difficult for him and he keeps changing his mind. To soften the blow to his boyfriend, he gets into deep water by describing the woman to M as being "manly" which leads to confusion and amusement, although W isn't amused because she isn't at all manly. What makes John's ambivalence unusual is that it is usually manifested in a man being unable to decide between two women or two men. The sexuality dialectic John finds himself caught in is different.
You might think that to throw away a perfectly good relationship for another is an attention seeking ploy but Ben Whishaw makes you think that John is deeply troubled by the decision. His indecision isn't at all self indulgent but he is caught compulsively swinging from one side to the other like those silver balls in an Archimedes' Cradle. Whishaw avoids eye contact as he confesses his relationship with the woman to Andrew Scott's male lover. He is like a puppy with his sorrowful eyebrows and unkempt hair. Andrew Scott's character is brittle and articulate, tight as a drum, mostly contained. Scott expresses his frustration and hurt at his inability to understand his partner's volte face with acid wit and invective. The woman, Katherine Parkinson, seems softer and more relaxed, her principal attraction after the novelty of their lovemaking being the boost to John's ego. But she expresses her negative feelings about them going round in circles, "There's so much emotional crap that orbits you, you collect it like space junk, and it's always flying around you, and I'm tired, I'm tired of avoiding it all."
The play culminates in an ill advised invitation for the woman to come to dinner with M and John. Add M's father F, played by Paul Jesson, who is there in defence of his son's interests and you know that there will be blood on the carpet.
Mike Bartlett's careful writing is lean, exact and economical. The director has nothing by way of props or scenery, just some understated movement but the secret of this play's impact is in the beautifully written script. We see the emotional impact of a scene between John and the woman where they talk us through the sex act while they stand holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. Only words and sounds are there to convey the intimate detail. The acting is of the very finest with careful casting. Interestingly the quote above was written before Ben Whishaw was cast but it fits his appearance so perfectly.
I have long been an admirer of James Macdonald's clever and subtle direction and of Andrew Scott as a brilliant, intuitive actor. Add impressive performances from Ben Whishaw and Katherine Parkinson and a dilemma in Cock which is classical in its intensity and fully deserving of a world-wide audience.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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