Bull Shows The Cut-Throat World Of Corporate Capitalism
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Mike Bartlett seems omnipresent in the capital these days. While the West End run of King Charles III is coming to an end and his new play Game opens at the Almeida next month, his short but punchy Bull (first staged in Sheffield in 2013) receives its London premiere. To some extent a companion piece to his earlier Cock, a penetrating exposé of sexual rivalry, this intense, testosterone-filled psychodrama hones in on the ruthless competitiveness of the office workplace in a brutal encounter of 55 minutes.
With their company being downsized, three besuited employees — two men and one woman — await the arrival of a senior executive to find out which one of them has lost their job. What starts out as edgy banter soon turns into something much nastier as the nervously defensive Thomas is wrong-footed at every turn by the coolly self-assured Tony and Isobel who prod him mercilessly in a display of concerted humiliation.
'Bull' suggests not only the bullshit of corporate speak but also the bullying that is used in this power game, as well as the unequal and cruel contest of bullfighting, or bullbaiting, bringing out the bestiality of all concerned. More savage than The Apprentice, this survival of the fittest ends in ritualised slaughter.
Clare Lizziemore revives her original production with economical force. Soutra Gilmour’s in-the-round design resembles a boxing ring, with a steel tubular surround, grey carpet and water cooler in one corner, with the seated audience steeply raked while others stand right on the edge of the arena, as the contestants circle and spar beneath the relentlessly bright spotlights. As a result we feel complicit in this cruel entertainment, which starts off by prompting us to laugh at the mutual jibes but develops into a compelling blood-sport.
You can almost feel the sweat from Sam Troughton’s brilliantly tense performance as the ‘weakest link’ Thomas, an unlikeable if pathetic misogynist who seems to be the outsider in the office team just as he probably was in his school playground. Adam James is a smoothly ruthless Tony supremely confident in his own abilities, while Eleanor Matsuura’s icily poised Isobel is as sharply pointed in her put-downs as her stilettos. And Neil Stuke’s steely social Darwinist manager Carter talks bullishly of ‘a cull to save the species… from extinction’ in Bartlett’s darkly absorbing depiction of post-recession capitalism.
By Neil Dowden
Bull is on at the Young Vic, The Cut SE1, until 14 February. Tickets are £19.50-£25. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 17 January 2015