Towards the end of Mike Bartlett’s Bull*, as performed at the Crucible Studio under the direction of Clare Lizzimore, I looked across the stage at members of the audience sitting opposite me: a woman was watching with her mouth open and a horrified expression. A man had his head slightly bowed, like he wished not to see but not able to stop himself. All with good reason: the last ten minutes of the play are as brutal and horrifying as anything I have seen on stage. And all that, without a drop of blood or physical violence.
But let’s get back to the beginning: as the back page of the text points out “Two jobs. Three candidates. This would be a really bad time to have a stain on your shirt”. Or maybe, this would be a bad time to imagine you have a stain on your shirt. Tony, Isobel and Thomas are waiting for a meeting with their boss. One of them will get fired. No decisions made yet but one of them doesn’t stand a chance. There is a horrifying inevitability to the proceedings.
Mike Bartlett’s language is disturbingly familiar. For anyone steeped in office politics, it rings true. Small mind games easily escalate. The text is also loaded with cultural values: efficiency, presentation, class, culling, Darwinian theories. What happens on stage is the concentrated version of every day office life. In small increments, it feels stressful. In this snapshot, it feels unbearable. And the responsibility lies with everyone.
Tony, as played by Adam James, is both loathsome and very funny. James has an imposing presence, a natural confidence, that fits the part perfectly. He does just enough, as Tony would. Efficiency as the ultimate virtue. Sam Troughton as Thomas exudes panic even when his face stays blank. Progressively, you can see the pressure pooling in his eyes. When he explodes, there is as much (impotent) rage as I have ever seen on stage. Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel is mysterious without being bland. For most of the story, she keeps her cards close to her chest. When she opens up, the ugliness overwhelms the story.
The staging is simple and specific: an empty arena, with the audience looking down, allows the actors to move like fighters in a boxing ring. (Eye of the Tiger plays on the speakers before the performance). Physical prowess is still important, even in an office environment. Thousand of years after mankind left the caves, survival of the fittest still means the same thing.
In the last ten minutes, the story is pushed to the edge: if the first forty minutes are about survival, the last ten are about annihilation. It’s shocking, surprising, visually and emotionally arresting. SPOILERS: Isobel seeks to show Thomas how weak he is. Thomas snaps, but he lashes in the air. In his desperation and rage, he dislodges the water cooler and ends up face down on the floor, defeated. Water from the dislodged water supply slowly fills the stage: you can easily imagine blood spreading, and with grim fascination you see it reaching Thomas, surrounding him, soaking him. For a spare production with no theatrical tricks, it’s an astute powerful image. END OF SPOILERS.
The running time is a lean 50 minutes. The play, reminiscent of Hungry Games without the excuse of the post apocalyptic universe, is revealing about the way we live and the values we have absorbed. I hope it is soon produced in London as it deserves a bigger audience.
*Bull for bullfighting. Or bullying. Or both.
P.S. In 2010, I saw a rehearsed reading of the play at the Finborough theatre. Clare Lizzimore, who clearly has had a lot of input in its development, was also the director. Adam James was playing Tony even back then, with Daniel Ryan as Thomas and Sian Brooke as Isobel. As I remember it, many elements of the story, especially the first scene, remain intact. Ian has a blog post about the Finborough event, it will give you interesting information about the evolution of the play.
P.P.S. Look around the audience before the start of the performance. Even if you don’t know the cast, someone looks out of place.
Still interested to find more? Read Ian Shuttleworth’s review at the Financial Times (the audience comment at the last paragraph is illuminating), Lyn Gardner’s at the Guardian, or better still watch an interview with the cast of Bull.