Mike Bartlett’s play Bull about vicious office rivalries astonishes
“Do you want to know what we both know?”
Bull has been a long time coming to London, appearing in New York in 2013 and Sheffield first. It is the companion piece to Mike Bartlett’s Cock which was about an emotional tug of war in a triangular relationship and set in a cockpit shaped arena.
Bull on the other hand is about working relationships and set in a ring, maybe a boxing ring or a bull ring. The audience surround the ring, some standing at the ringside, very close to the action.
This black comedy exploits the most vicious company culture of corporate condoned bullying. The night I saw it there was no cheering or booing from the audience, just sharp intakes of shocked breath at some of the cruelest comments and laughter from others. I have trained to counsel and support people who have been bullied in the workplace and often bullying is subtle. But there is nothing subtle about the treatment meted out to Thomas. It is really unpleasant and inhuman. It degrades those that play the game, for it has to be a game.
I often find it hard to laugh at the inept ridiculed and so it was with Bull; I felt too much empathy for the victim. Other things puzzled me. How did Thomas (Sam Troughton) get a job alongside these thrusting alpha business people? I am a great admirer of Mike Bartlett’s canon of plays, each one different from the others but Bull left me feeling troubled.
The bullfight analogy works when we see Thomas’s path to his own destruction as he returns allowing Isobel and Tony to score another blow like the bull in the ring being killed slowly for the entertainment of the baying crowd. Is that the audience? Should we have intervened to stop this?
The performances are magnificent. Eleanor Marsuura’s tall, haughty, ball breaking but damaged super intelligent panther pacing the ring ready to make Thomas feel insecure. Sam Troughton is excellent as floundering Thomas, so out of his league and when he does lose control he’s explosive. Clare Lizzimore’s production is tense as they circle the water cooler, the carpet a soft pretty blue.
We learn the back stories of the three contenders for two roles in the organization. I just hope that Isobel and Tony get their comeuppance as younger and vicious colleagues come to the fore.
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Clare Lizzimore
Director: Clare Lizzimore
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Running Time: 55 minutes without an interval
Closed at the Young Vic on 14th February 2015
The Young Vic
London SE1 8LZ
Phone: 020 7922 2922
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Young Vic on 14th January 2015