Bull

Mike Bartlett
A Sheffield Theatres Production
Crucible Studio
to

Award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett has written a gem of a new play, currently receiving its first performances at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield. Bull suggests bullishness and bullshit as well as bullying, and these elements are skilfully interwoven in a play script that chillingly evokes the dynamics of bullying, in school, the work place, and elsewhere.

‘Two jobs. Three candidates’. One member of an office team is to be made redundant. Two persistent bullies unite to make sure that their usual victim is the one to go. Bartlett unpicks how bullying works: the identification of someone unable to fight back; demeaning personal comments; ganging up; lies; manipulation; humiliation; cruelty. And, with the collusion of a callous and easily manipulated boss, the seeds of a modern tragedy.

In a speech towards the end of the short play, the boss, Carter, played by Adrian Lukis, describes downsizing as a necessary cull. ‘I think that’s quite a good word for what we’re doing, it’s a cull to save the species, by which I mean the rest of us, from extinction.’ So the action is vindicated and the victim de-humanised.

Though dealing with a serious topic, Bartlett’s play is witty, ‘razor sharp and acid tongued’ and highly entertaining. One of the anomalies in the writing is that in the first half of the play, the bullies, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel and Adam James as Tony, are intelligent, amusing characters with whom it is easy to identify, who belong to a long tradition of theatrical comic types stretching back to Shakespeare (Beatrice and Benedick, for example).

By contrast, it is easy to despise the scruffy, easily manipulated, taunted loser Thomas, superbly played by Sam Troughton; that is, until the final stages of the play, when he demonstrates that his suffering is all too human. As in other tragic situations, if he had a fault it was a small one and the punishment too great.

Bull is a complex play, and experienced director Clare Lizzimore does it full justice. The play is set in a fight ring (boxing or wrestling) a setting recommended years ago by Brecht for plays concerned with the cut and thrust of human interaction, and a particularly effective metaphor in this case. Movement in the square box is economic and positioning always important. There are moments of strong visual significance: Tony’s bared chest; the appalling hug ‘like they do on The Apprentice’; and the final highly metaphoric sequence which leaves the audience searching for meaning.

The fight ring is admirably and unfussily designed by Soutra Gilmour, who pulls off an original and mesmerising final effect. The grey suits worn by the office workers suggest school uniforms that have found their way into later life. The medley of loud pop music which precedes the action creates an exciting buzz in the audience which might well be expecting to see a fight or a football match.

There are excellent performances from all four actors. Adam James finds a light touch for the wit and teasing nuances of Tony’s brand of cruelty; while Eleanor Matsura, elegantly confident in short skirt and high heels, demonstrates how she can use her sexuality to confuse Thomas and impress the boss while putting the knife in. ‘I’ve also found, sir, that he has issues with women… makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable in his presence’.

Sam Troughton is completely convincing as the confused and humiliated victim and very strong in the final powerful moments of the play. Adrian Lukis establishes himself very quickly in the role of the imperceptive and self-aggrandising office boss, and adds a crucial extra dimension to the play.

The play is scheduled until 23rd February at the Crucible Studio. It is to be hoped that there will be other performances elsewhere at a later date. It is really worth seeing.

Reviewer: Velda Harris