There’s a reason why Mike Bartlett’s funny and brutal ‘Bull’ runs only 55 minutes. If you sat through two and a half hours of this, you would lose your mind.
We’re invited to spectate as three employees at an unnamed corporation battle it out to keep their jobs. Corporate downsizing means one of them is about to be fired, and big boss Carter (Nigel Lindsay) is coming any minute to decide who’s for the chopping block: icy, manipulative Isobel (Susannah Fielding), cocky, arrogant Tony (Max Bennett) or jittery, insecure Thomas (Marc Wootton).
The action takes place in a boxing ring, and there couldn’t be a more appropriate setting to witness the bullying, power-plays and outright psychological warfare waged by Isobel and Tony against hapless Thomas. Marc Wootton’s portrayal of a man out of his depth in this cutthroat world is faultless, sadly suggesting that this may not be a unique situation for one of life’s perennial losers. Bennett and Fielding tear into their roles with glee, aptly circling him like bloodhounds ready to take down the weakest of the pack.
Director Clare Lizzimore manages to marry the raw physicality of a boxing match with the outward civility of a 21st-century office environment. Isobel’s sleek hair and perfect make-up belie her barely-concealed viciousness, while at one point the lean, muscular Tony displays his washboard torso to Thomas for a good five minutes as a primal declaration of superiority. (Unbelievably I was seated directly behind Max Bennett during this sequence, and therefore denied what was undoubtedly a glorious view).
Carter finally arrives and while he offers helpful take-downs of each of the characters, (a wonderful, brief performance from Lindsay as the boss we’ve all had who just has no time for all your whinging), he’s ultimately on the side of the alphas.
Max Bennett is convincing as Tony, fully inhabiting his smarm and public-school superiority complex, but he draws the short straw with a character who gets much less to do than his sparring partners. Instead the spoils go to Susannah Fielding, who gets to deliver the powerhouse speech that brings the play to its climax and finally brings Thomas’ house of cards tumbling down.
Bartlett offers no easy answers: ‘Bull’ asks what happens when we abandon our compassion and attack those perceived to be weaker than us. The answer, apparently, is that we survive.
- ‘Bull’ is on at The Young Vic until January 16th. Tickets £25; £10 ringside standing tickets are available for each performance.