Feature: Clare Lizzimore takes the Bull by its horns

Image by Carol Rosegg

Director Clare Lizzimore tried to keep to the swift and beautiful aggression promised by the title of her latest production, Bull. After runs in Sheffield and New York had critics naming her effort a success, the Young Vic is the next target for her and writer Mike Bartlett’s unflinching portrayal of office politics.

Framing both Bull and its companion piece, the Olivier Award-winning Cock, are three characters competitively struggling to influence a powerful fourth. Rather than Cock’s sexual clash, Bull sees two workers avoiding possible redundancy by brutally ganging up on a third. Only 50 minutes long, Lizzimore says the “deliberately cruel” play shoots by like a “bullet”. When I ask if she’s excited to take it to the Young Vic, there is no hesitation: “Oh, yes! It’s a beacon of all that is good about theatre. It’s audience-based, diverse and the work is exquisite”.

When she first received the script, Lizzimore “ever so slightly panicked”. She and designer Soutra Gilmour had no stage directions, only minimal props and the metaphor of a bullfight to guide them. Through workshops, collaboration with actors and simple endeavour, they settled on a minimalist conference room style glass boxing ring stage in the round. The half-standing audience would feel “metaphorical punches, ducks and dives, and sparring with language. Often in Mike Bartlett’s work, the play is only truly revealed when you find the best staging metaphor”.

Just like in real world office politics, no one is passive – including the audience. Some of them verbally root for the underdog, whilst others hold a shocked silence. One audience member was physically sick. Lizzimore suspects some audience members secretly enjoy “watching expert matadors at work. It has same the upbeat, fun, thrilling spirit of the past watching public hangings or the Christians and the lions…Crucially, though, Bull remains a piece of theatre not reliant on audience reaction”.

With numerous awards under her belt and wide-ranging directing and writing work, Bull is the latest of a long string of successes for Lizzimore. Her fascination with theatre developed early. As a dyslexic child, she was able to “articulate herself in a freer way when doing drama”. Playing the tiny billy goat in Three Billy Goats Gruff, she was too scared to cross the bridge with the troll. The older kids came back to get her, completely changing the narrative. “Humanity triumphed in those very early stages of devising. The idea you can manipulate, change and create stories through living moments in the room was very impactful”. It was, of course, a natural progression from Three Billy Goats Gruff to studying film and theatre at the University of Reading followed by a MA at Central School of Speech and Drama.

Any advice for budding directors? “Whereas in film you can digitally guide the person’s eye, one of your jobs as a theatre director is telling the audience where to look. You refine that over a lifetime. That’s why it’s so important to see a lot of theatre even as a working practitioner. Look for things that are moving and truthful. Ultimately, as a director, you need to have a really good taste, know what your politics are, then galvanise all those opinions and choose”.

Bull is a “tender, beautiful play about bullying, frailty and the world we live in”. Lizzimore overheard a grandmother in the audience thankful she had never faced such brutality to which her granddaughter replied she lived it every day. Such universal, difficult content “could be equally moving for teenagers, as their grandparents, as people who work in the city. Hopefully it will have a profound effect and ask questions on how to treat people. We used to tell our children to be good. Now, it’s more complex: do you want to be good and fail? With really clever plays, they set up a premise and ask a question where the audience will go away and consider the wider ramifications on the world”.

Despite its seemingly captivating honesty, Bull lacks a narrative in the traditional sense: just as in a bullfight, who will die and who will live is obvious. Lizzimore reminds me, though, that a particularly courageous bull can be pardoned. Naively hoping for an answer, I ask if that is true for Bull.

“Well,” she says. “You’ll have to find out, won’t you?”

At only a tenner for a standing ticket, I think I will. With a play that is “accessible, 50 minutes and funny”, Lizzimore hopes that younger audiences will enjoy “a strange, enjoyable experience and find a love of theatre within it”.

Bull plays at the Young Vic from 8 January to 7 February