'Bull' review or 'Can anyone smell blood?'

Bull, Mike Bartlett
Young Vic Theatre, 15th January 2015

Adam James, Sam Troughton and Eleanor Matsuura in Bull at the Young Vic. Photo by Simon Annand

The Young Vic stage has been transformed into a ring, for bull fighting or boxing or whatever else might take your vicious fancy. The ring is enclosed by perspex barriers and a water cooler stands in one corner. Inside the ring stand our competitors for the night: three smartly suited office workers. At the end of the night, one of these office workers is going to be fired. We have been invited to watch the battle.

Bartlett likes to land some serious punches with his plays and, both in recent play ‘King Charles III’ and 2009 play ‘Cock’, he brandishes his words as weapons. ‘Bull’, receiving its second UK outing, is as bruising as it gets. This is a gleefully mean-hearted play and has a touch of Lord of the Flies about it, only everyone is in suits and supposedly grown up. The Piggy of our play is Thomas (Sam Troughton), the weakest worker in the pack. His colleagues, Tony (Adam James) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) can smell blood and are determined to bring down Thomas and save their jobs in the process. This isn't going to be pretty.

Director Clare Lizzimore releases the venom gradually and 'Bull' begins on a relatively easy note. Tony and Isobel patiently circle their victim, playing with him and prodding him but still holding back. They go in for the kill only when Thomas is at his weakest. Adam James is particularly brilliant at this cruel game – a ‘damned smiling villain’ of the very top order. He smiles broadly as he ‘banters’ with Thomas but it is the emptiest of grins that somehow freezes and transmutes, with barely a flicker of the eyes, into the most chilling of sneers.

Soutra Gilmour's set places some of the spectators practically on top of the ring and, what is really interesting to note, is how differently those ‘inside’ of things react to the show. The spectators hanging over the banister seem involved in a way that stops them from judging or from pulling back. They laugh most loudly at the jokes and seem most keenly affected by the blows, both real and verbal. Once you're inside this world, it is very, very hard not to get drawn into the battle. 

There are some outrageous moments of humour, as insightful as they are silly. The best of these is when Tony and Isobel, through ingenious manipulation, convince Thomas to lay his head against Tony’s bare chest. We watch Thomas reluctantly edge towards Tony’s gleaming torso and, despite ourselves, urge him forward. Most absurd of all is how relatively normal this moment seems. Bartlett builds up towards this encounter brilliantly and, depressingly and revealingly, it works perfectly within this context.

Just two question marks hover over 'Bull'. The first is that the play is set against the recession, which simply doesn’t seem quite so urgent anymore. ‘Bull’ would be just as powerful if that reference were somehow eased out. The second problem is the ending, which pushes things too far and makes things a tad too personal. ‘Bull’ is best when it is at its most impersonal, when those two bullies could be anyone and Thomas could stand in for any one of us. As the play builds towards its battering conclusion, Thomas’ personal life is revealed and the threat somehow diminished. With details of his private life revealed, Thomas no longer feels like an everyman. Bartlett also pushes the bullying slightly too far. The punches keep on flying until we have been numbed by the cruelty of these two workers. If Bartlett had just held back a couple of those final blows, this could’ve been a knock out. A bruising experience, then – but I’m still standing.


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