“If we see someone who’s really going to fuck up the rest of us because they’re stupid or slow or weak or thin or short or ugly or has dandruff or something you have to desire somewhere deep within you to take them down first”
Travelling from London to Sheffield to see a play that is 50 minutes long may seem close to madness but playwright Mike Bartlett is someone whose work I would happily go far to see and so there was no doubt that a day-trip to see Bull would be on the cards. I actually caught a rehearsed reading of the show at the Finborough a couple of years ago, so I knew the ballpark it was in – more the blistering intimacy of Contractions and Cock than the epic sprawling grandeur of 13 and Earthquakes in London – and with a top-notch cast being directed by Clare Lizzimore in the studio space at the Crucible, expectations were high.
And this production certainly met them. Bartlett locates Bull in a tense office environment where three members of a sales team are awaiting a meeting with their boss where one of them is going to get fired. The atmosphere is clearly survival of the fittest and it soon becomes apparent that Thomas lacks the killer business mindset of Tony and Isobel and in a brilliantly sustained barrage of bullying and mindgames which last the entire duration, they systematically dishearten, deconstruct and destroy their target.
Leaving us in no doubt of how vicious the intent is, Lizzimore places her protagonists in a boxing ring – excellently designed by Soutra Gilmour with the audience sat and stood on all sides, complicit spectators recognising that beyond the hypnotic horror of the aggressors toying with their prey, Bartlett has hit on an undeniable truth of human nature. As Eleanor Matsuura’s Isobel prowls around the ring, jabbing at Thomas’ weaknesses with surgical precision and Adam James’ brash Tony epitomises the type of chest-baring corporate arrogance that delights in belittling the weedy, it is Darwin’s theories brought to life and it is hard to root for the guy who is on the back foot from the beginning.
Sam Troughton really is impressive as the hapless Thomas, looking increasingly haggard as his attempts to reciprocate in the verbal sparring get more and more desperate as he realises he is up against two masters of the game. Both Matsuura and James deal wonderfully with Bartlett’s customary whip-sharp dialogue and by the time that seconds are counted out and the production plays its final gambit, there is no doubting that this is a knock-out success for all concerned. Well worth the trip.