First published on A Younger Theatre
Bull offers a ‘how to guide’ in annihilating your opponent in under an hour. Like Matadors, two office colleagues wave a red cloth to lure a beast into rage, then playfully side step his attempts of regaining power, until finally he meets his demise.
First performed at the Crucible Studio theatre in Sheffield in 2013, Bull makes a second appearance at the Young Vic after it’s premiere earlier this year. Marking a particularly strong year for Mike Bartlett, who has enjoyed huge success with King Charles III and Doctor Foster,Bull is another strong offer that strips bare the veneer of office politics in the face of eminent downsizing. The gloves come out, so to speak.
Tony (Max Bennett) and Isobel (Susannah Fielding), genetically blessed and intellectually armed, share an irrepressible lust for success. They pit themselves against everyman Thomas (Marc Wootton), the ‘runt’ of the pack. As the three employees face a meeting in which one of them is to lose their job due to the downsizing of the company, the former are adamant that their places are secure. What unfolds is a masked attacked against their colleague where they playfully undermine every facet of his being in the minutes leading up to the vital showdown.
As the audience enter, they are met with adrenaline-inducing tunes of Kanye West and Survivor, with acid, yellow light beaming over the arena. The sense that we are about to watch a fight take place is palpable, the heady concoction tingles the senses of audience members so that they stand alert.
Unable to defend himself against the venomous jibes of his two co-workers, Thomas is victim to a slew of poisonous abuse, infecting every fibre of his body throughout the performance, sweating out of his pores, until finally, the venom consumes him. Though some awkward laughter erupts from the audience, at no point are we comfortable with how the battle unfolds. In one instance, Thomas is subject to a ridiculous game where he must place his cheek against Tony’s torso. With his shirt raised, abs tense, Tony’s stomach makes a mockery of Thomas. Max Bennett’s childish grin and wilful beckoning is a disturbing picture of smug youth.
Yet, Thomas is not a wholly sympathetic character. We find out he has separated from his wife, he is excluded from work drinks and is easily manipulated. He’s not a character that wins your allegiance from first sight. Yet, round after round of Isobel and Tony’s pummelling, will at worst warrant your pity.
Clare Lizzimore’s direction is taut, the words are delivered in machine-gun rounds of fire. Giving no chance for Thomas to redeem himself, though he makes pitiful efforts, perhaps solidifying his fate even further. Bartlett’s Bull is a rigorous critique of underhand office politics at their worst.
Bull is playing at the Young Vic until 16 January 2016. For tickets and further information, see the Young Vic website. Photo by Manuel Harlan.