Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Clare Lizzimore
Stripped back drama where characters are laid bare in front of the audience with nothing to hide behind, or pure exposition devoid of subtext, subtlety or layering? A convincing argument could be made for either interpretation of Mike Bartlett’s 2013 play Bull, finally receiving its London premiere at the Young Vic.
That a play so obviously set within the cut-throat world of modern business and dog-eat-dog office politics has taken two years, and the success of King Charles III, to reach the London stage could be taken as a reflection of the plays success in delivering its message in anything other than a one-dimensional, blunt force trauma style way that bears all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. On the other hand, it could be proof that the pin-point accuracy of the depiction of characters and situation, exposing primal instincts in an almost Darwinian, only the strongest survive, scenario, is too close to the bone, making uneasy viewing for people whose working lives and personas resemble those being played out in front of them.
These are the dichotomies at the heart of a play that is likely to divide audiences. The metaphors and analogies are obvious from the start. A play about the battle between three people trying to avoid redundancy has a title that conjures up images of bull fighting where matadors attempt to kill wild animals that would otherwise kill them. Soutra Gimour’s set, extending to the layout of the theatre, mirrors the setting of bare knuckle boxing or WWE tag team matches, with a stage the shape and size of a wrestling ring, two rows of standing tickets close to the action, and steeply raked seating allowing the rest of the audience to witness the almost gladiatorial battle the setting and subject matter suggest.
But here comes the first problem. The attempts of Tony and Isobel to join forces and ensure that Thomas is the employee who gets the chop are too nuanced and insidious to create the same tension and energy as the sports they are trying to emulate. The next problem is that the outcome is never really in doubt. They are ganging up on the weaker, defenceless Thomas, and they are doing it because he doesn’t quite fit in. His suit isn’t quite right, his body isn’t quite toned enough, and, worse still, he actually went to a comprehensive school. It almost feels like a parody, but with no sense of the irony that should come with it.
It is well observed and has some arch lines and chilling characterisations, but in stripping it back so much it becomes less like a play and more like a bizarre motivational video for the modern businessman.
The introduction of Neil Stuke as Carter, the man with the power to issue the redundancy, also draws a strange parallel between this world and the world of Reginald Perrin, the 70s sitcom character immortalised by Leonard Rossiter, and later played by Martin Clunes with Stuke as his obsequious, detached from reality, boss.
Full credit to Bartlett for exposing the nature of much of the competitive business culture that has been deemed a virtue and a necessity by others, and credit also for the eventual damning verdict on Thomas, and the more subtle details that do make it through, such as his dislike of the abbreviation of his name and other’s insistence on using it.
However, it is probably because of this accuracy, and the lack of any attempts to disguise it, that the play is destined to alienate as many people as it captivates.
Runs until 14 February, 2015