I’m someone who very much will follow playwrights rather than actors from stage to stage, and Mike Bartlett is one of a handful of currently active playwrights (Neil Labute, Nick Payne) that I try to see every time they do something new. Bartlett’s forte, to me, is correctly capturing how people think and behave now, in the modern world (Contractions being another one in this vein). He’s especially talented at showing how people lie to themselves – an element I find particularly attractive in plays – and is responsible for my favorite new work of the last five years, Cock. So there was no doubt in my mind that when I was told his short play Bull was going to be making its London debut at the Young Vic, I had to go, sold-out-ness be damned. And, as I hoped, a few tickets came though before the show, though through what seemed to me like very bad luck, my seated seat became a standing seat on the day of (a mix up of some sort, I was told, that affected about 20 people).
The small space at the Young Vic has been set up like an arena for this show, with waist-height glass walls surrounding a carpeted square defined only as an office by the presence of a water cooler. This look, with two rows of spectators standing at its edges, felt very much like a boxing ring: we paid our money to watch the action. As the besuitted actors walked in and immediately began to bicker with each other, I began to feel like I was backstage at a reality TV show, but the coworkers I was watching – who were clearly, each one of them, individually dedicated to destroying the others – displayed none of the pandering, “appealing to the home viewers” attitudes of people performing on TV. No, this was more like one of those nature documentaries in which happy gazelles bound across the plains until they’re taken down by a cheetah, only in this case it was a lion/rhino/crocodile battle – all muscle and heaving violence, but fought with the scalpel blades of words. Thomas (Sam Troughton) initially appears to be the rhino, stomping in and bellowing at Isobel (Eleanor Matsura), quickly going for personal insults on her sexual availability – but Isobel completely avoids his jibes and manages to deftly point out how his style of argumentation highlights his own shortcomings. Then Tony (Adam James) appears and the full level of the head games being played comes out. They all know that only two of them will survive, and, smelling blood, Tony and Isobel are bound and determined to make sure they’ve done their best to ensure survival of themselves. Bullying, insults, bringing up a colleague’s personal life, hiding vital information … all of the weapons of the office jungle come in to play, while we watch, breathless, on the side, as if at a bull-baiting pit with the dogs occasionally fighting each other and their handler egging all of them on, as if for maximum viewer enjoyment.
The cumulative effect of all of this verbal violence is overwhelming; it feels too real, too immediate. My brain was sending “thank God that wasn’t me” messages as the inevitable end played out, with pinstripe and patent leather clad predators slinking away while a third animal bled its life into the waterhole. All it needed was a vulture swooping in to take a first bite. It was an absolutely fantastic, hair-raising night at the theater.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 27, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)