The brilliant combination of Mike Bartlett’s taut writing and Clare Lizzimore’s provocative direction brings this challenging and uncomfortable play to life once again.
Three employers fight to keep their jobs in the bullring that is modern, capitalist, cut-throat London. Lizzimore and her talented designer Soutra Gilmour transform Bartlett’s sharp script, which does not contain stage directions, into a fully imagined office-come-bull-ring. The decision is an ingenious one, and complimented by the carefully selected moments of tension littered throughout the tight 55 minute running time. A hug becomes a nail biter; a water dispenser becomes a weapon.
The cast is unrelenting and masterful throughout. Max Bennett’s precision and charisma give the play a much-needed lightness, while the consistently brilliant Susannah Fielding adds a muted depth to Isobel, embracing the script’s complex underlying gender dynamic. The two deliver their witty cruelties with an unoffending lightness, perfectly capturing the subtleties of playground-come-office bullies.
Marc Wootton’s panting, sweaty and unrelenting depiction of Thomas is the stand out performance. His outburst to the intimidating authority figure, played by the menacingly sharp Nigel Lindsay, is heartbreakingly convincing. Wootton’s stammering delivery of ‘everyday when I sit on the train into work just going over and over, worrying about what’s going to happen to me when I come into work’ stayed with me long after I the left the theatre.
And yet Thomas is as irritating a character as he is a sympathetic one. This inherent contradiction touches upon the pulse of the play. Like Doctor Foster, Mike Bartlett’s BBC drama which premiered earlier this year, Bull engages with the brilliance of nastiness; the performative splendor of being cruel. The art of Bartlett’s writing, and the casts’ detailed understanding of it, ensures that audiences are constantly swinging back and forth from a position of sympathy for the victim, to a place of admiration for the bullies. This adept audience manipulation, which recalls the work of David Mamet, is one of the play’s defining strengths.
Bull is perhaps so difficult to watch because we are made to feel as if we are in complicit collaboration with these bullies by laughing at their jibes, by secretly agreeing that Thomas’ suit looks cheap or that he is, as Isobel says ‘asking for it’. By being mere spectators, we seem to be participating, or at the very least complying, with these bullies and their hard-hitting words.