Following the success of King Charles III and Cock, Mike Bartlett’s Bull lands at the Young Vic with a bang. A darkly comic and violent emotional rollercoaster of a play, Bull is some of the best fringe theatre I have seen in a long time.
Thomas, Tony, and Isobel are awaiting a meeting with their boss during which one of them will be fired. It’s a rough situation, which calls for underhand tactics to get ahead. Tony and Isobel work together to gnaw away at Thomas, playing on his insecurities and weaknesses, and to ensure that he will be the one to go.
Initially Bull appears to be a comedy based around office banter and childish jokes, but as it develops the tone darkens significantly, culminating in a violent and shocking final scene that leaves the viewer at once satisfied and upset. Clare Lizzimore’s staging evokes the image of a boxing or wrestling ring, or more appropriately a bullring, in which Thomas responds exactly as planned to Tony and Isobel’s jibes and schemes and, despite his best efforts, comes out much worse off than as he entered.
The audience is left uneasy by the ease with which they have been able to enjoy Isobel and Tony’s previous jibes and jokes at Thomas’s expense, having thought they were just part of office banter. It is easy to continue laughing, albeit with decreasing frequency, right up until the crucial meeting in which the action comes to its cruel head. In laughing along, we effectively participate in the brutal office bullying that takes place on stage. Perhaps we did not envisage it going this far, but nonetheless we can consider that a positive reaction from bystanders serves to encourage and validate a bully’s behaviour. There is a fine line between banter and bullying – when did we cross it, and where do we cross it in our own lives?
The cast is very impressive: Eleanor Matsuura embodies the ‘power bitch’ stereotype, commanding attention; Adam James is smug and smarmy; Sam Troughton begins with a perfect balance between confident and self-doubting which tips toward the latter. Troughton’s performance in particular will linger on in my mind’s eye, highlighting the key tensions and horror of the play as the sympathetic central figure. Although I found the character of Isobel to be a bit overly constructed around the male gaze – why must women in work settings always be emphatically sexy? – I found myself liking all of the characters. Perhaps ‘like’ is the wrong word; nonetheless I enjoyed watching their characters develop, even and especially when Tony and Isobel’s true colours showed.
From a talented cast and creative team, Bull is fringe theatre of the highest calibre, and some of the best drama that London has to offer at the moment. Go. Just go.
Bull plays at the Young Vic until 14 February. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo by Simon Annand.