As my theatre going has increased over the last few years, one of the playwrights whose work has stood out has been Mike Bartlett, ever since Earthquakes In London in 2010 (more recently known through the success of his brilliant play King Charles III). I was therefore not going to miss the premiere of his new play, Bull, in Sheffield in February 2013, especially as one of my favourite actors was in the cast! Bull became a highlight of my theatre year and following a run in New York in 2014, I had to see it again during its first London run at the Young Vic (a theatre on a roll at the moment).
Little has changed since Sheffield and Bull remains a fantastic piece of theatre, which truly gets under your skin. Tony, Isabelle and Thomas are in a fight to keep their jobs in a time of cutbacks – one must go, the question is which one? Over the 50-55 minutes, we witness the cruel tormenting of Thomas by the other two and what’s most effective and also affecting about Bartlett’s writing here for me is how the discomfort builds for the audience. It all seems to be silly banter at first, but grows more and more uncomfortable, forcing you to think about where the line is between banter and bullying.
The staging is perfectly designed for the play, as we see events unfold within a boxing ring-shaped office, enhancing the animalistic fight taking place, as the stronger turn on the weaker to survive. It was also wonderful to see the Young Vic’s Maria full, including the standing audience around the ringside itself, which certainly added to the atmosphere. Having seen it before, it was interesting for me to observe other audience members and watch as their reactions / responses to the play altered as it unfolded, resulting in a much quieter room by the end, as you feel almost duplicitous with Tony and Isabelle simply by being there.
The cast remains fantastic. Adam James (on my must see actor list since Blood and Gifts in 2010) plays Tony so well – charming yet devious, playful yet cruel, as he has his fun at the expense of Thomas. The sad truth is you know people like him really do exist! Eleanor Matsuura has the tough task of playing a truly horrid character as Isabelle’s tormenting of Thomas intensifies. For me, it seemed all the more dreadful because she was a woman acting this way and their two-hander scene is a true highlight of the play.
Sam Troughton, also reprising his role, is wonderful as Thomas and carries much of the emotional pull of the hour and by the end you really do feel sadness for him, as you imagine yourself in the same position. Neil Stuke’s role as their boss (replacing Adrian Lukis from the original cast) may be brief, but it still carries weight and is very believable. I imagine there are many bosses throughout the country (and the City in particular) who would share his attitude.
Bull is not an easy play to watch, but it remains a short but incredibly powerful piece of theatre. If you have an hour to spare and can get a ticket to see this at the Young Vic, then don’t hesitate.
Bull continues its run at the Young Vic’s Maria theatre until 14th February 2015. More information can be found here or by calling the box office for ticket availability on 020 7922 2922.