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Cock director Marianne Elliott: "I didn't want to do something you could watch on telly"

The hit revival is now officially open!

Marianne Elliott
© Ki Price

On Tuesday evening Marianne Elliott's revival of Mike Bartlett's comedy Cock officially opened in the West End, receiving a rapturous review from WhatsOnStage's Sarah Crompton in the process.

Following the curtain call, we spoke to the multi-award-winning director, whose previous stage credits include Death of a Salesman, Company, Angels in America, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and War Horse, and here's what she had to say about her latest theatrical venture.

It's always quite the event when a Marianne Elliott-directed show opens in Theatreland. What appealed to you in particular about reviving Mike Bartlett's comedy Cock?

Well, I definitely wanted to do a comedy because I felt everyone needed a good laugh after the last two years that we've had. I wanted to do something with Johnny Bailey, so I was looking for things that would be good for him. I wanted to do something that was relevant to the things we've been talking about over the last two years and I really wanted to do something that was about the craft of theatre. I didn't want to do something literal with a literal set and three walls because you could just watch that on your telly. It had to be something that was all about an active imagination and how the audience come along the ride with the actors, listening to the words, watching the amazing acting and participating in what their imagination is telling them. Where are we? What's the timeline? Are we in a sitting room? Are we drinking wine? How do we know these things? Who's gonna end up with who? There's just a very, very plain set and these beautiful actors with these amazing words. They're acting their socks off!

So, how did you first go about tackling it in the rehearsal room?

It's sort of written like a thriller. It's all about the words and how brilliant the words are. When you first read it – apart from it being really funny – you are working it out as you go. So, nothing is actually told to you. It's not delivered to you, in a way. You really have to work it out with the actors and that's part of the joy. I suppose that's where we started from and we wanted to create a set that was really beautiful and that was quite modernist. We wanted for it to say something about them as characters metaphorically and not literally. It was about releasing the words and for an actor on stage, the words are your major weapon, if you like. That's all you have. You might have fancy clothes and you might have an amazing set. You might have hydraulics and things flying, but actually words are the most important thing. It's telling the story through words which is the age old tradition. But this is in a really clever way. It's twisting it.

Following the massive success of Company, in which you also collaborated with Jonathan Bailey, how was it reuniting with him for this project?

It was just divine! It was like working with a Rolls-Royce! He's so good at his craft. He loves to work in the rehearsal room. He loves notes from directors. He's so open. He's extremely generous towards his other actors. I suppose people think that directing is when you know what you want and you have to get the actor to arrive at that place, but it often isn't that. I'd say 90 per cent of it isn't that. It's about creating something together every day and building every day and adding on to that and adding on and adding on. So, if you've got somebody that is as creative as you want to be and is just as perfectionist as you try to be, there are constantly creative juices flowing. That's extremely exciting, especially after those horrible two years!

The actual physical contact in the play seems to be kept intentionally limited and the moments it does happen are all the stronger for it. When Jonathan and Taron Egerton's characters finally kissed, for example, you could hear a pin drop in that theatre. As a director, how do you nurture that sort of sizzling onstage chemistry?

It's all about being connected and being present in the moment. Again, that sounds like the easiest thing, but is it easy to be present in the moment in your life? No. Is it easy to be present in the moment when you're acting on stage? Absolutely not. That's all about training and it's all about working on it. It's all about trusting the other person and trusting the people that you're working with. They are both very open and they are very trusting.

Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Cock
© Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Well, congratulations on another West End hit! What's in the pipeline for you next?

I don't really know what I'm going to do next. I actually haven't got anything planned, which is lovely. I'm actually going to have a bit of a break and see where I'm at. And then we can probably be a bit more spontaneous about the next thing we're going to do. Often you'll plan for years in advance, but because of the pandemic, I'm not. It's great. It means I can go: "Ooh, I'm feeling this kinda flavour and maybe I could go down this road and I don't have to wait for two years before I can do it."

So, no Broadway transfer aspirations for this particular production yet?

Oh, nobody's thought about that yet. We're just having a lovely time here in London! [laughs]

Jonathan Bailey, Phil Daniels, Taron Egerton and Jade Anouka in Cock
© Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Cock continues its West End engagement at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 June 2022, with tickets on sale below.