You know the guy. Looks slightly clammy. A bit misproportioned. Often has a stain on his collar. Isn’t told when or where the parties are happening. A bit of a loner, a bit of a loser. And so maybe you’ve been tempted to mock him a little, undermine him, but only behind his back. Or maybe in front of his face, okay, but in a style you figure he won’t understand because — where did he go to school? And anyway, what’s he doing here? Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if he got the picture and somehow was made to disappear? Things would really be simpler, clearer, cleaner that way. For him, too. Poor fellow.
In Bull, Mike Bartlett’s gleefully vicious stunt of a play, that character is named Thomas and is so well inhabited by the actor Sam Troughton that you almost immediately accept him as the pathetic creature his coworkers describe. And you really believe that those coworkers — Adam James as Tony, a slimy peacock, and Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel, an enameled bitch — are of a different, better (if nastier) species. This sleight-of-conscience is what Bartlett’s after: He deliberately confuses your moral compass by throwing you into a cruelly artificial situation. As in an episode of The Apprentice, the three characters must compete for two jobs that will remain after the downsizing of their company. Tony and Isobel, only partly to ensure they win, needle and then outright torture Thomas for most of the play’s 55 minutes until he disgraces himself in front of the boss (Neil Stuke: scarily Trumpesque) and is left for dead like a bull at the end of a bullfight.
The metaphor of the title can’t be avoided; it’s constantly driven home. There are, of course, the knives stuck in Thomas’s back. There’s the explicit connection to “bullying.” There’s the way firing is justified as a necessary “cull”: “If we see someone who’s going to bring down the whole tribe or whatever,” says Isobel, “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 or ugly or has dandruff or something, you have the desire somewhere deep within you to take them down first.” Nice.
And then there’s the environment. Director Clare Lizzimore has staged the work in a raised square arena, within which the actors constantly triangulate and retriangulate, stalk and pace, feint and regroup, strike and stagger. The audience plays the crowd, with standing room for 47 around the glassed-in playing space and seating for 58 more climbing up two sides of the theater. This arrangement strongly resembles James Macdonald’s 2012 staging of Bartlett’s previous play Cock, frequently rendered in prim newspapers as The Cockfight Play. (This one’s subtitle is The Bullfight Play.) Cock, in which a gay man and a straight woman fight over the affections of their mutual inamorato, uses sexual competition as its controlling metaphor for power and fittingly took place in a mini-coliseum, with the audience surrounding the circular playing area.
Its companion piece (as I guess we have to call it) is less well-rounded. Or to put it another way, it’s much more pointed, which isn’t entirely a compliment. Though Bartlett’s dialogue in Bull is superb, as it was in Cock, its disowned nastiness and air of false concern is so extreme that it’s almost hilarious:
TONY: Look mate, Thomas, mate, me and her, we’re both very normal people, honestly this isn’t a thing against you, you have to understand that, you seem to have it in your head that we’re always attacking you, and we’re not. We’re really not. Promise. Really. Promise.
ISOBEL: It’s paranoia.
THOMAS: Paranoia. Right.
ISOBEL: Do you have history of mental illness in your family?
Hilarity is usually a good thing, and the actors are experts at hitting the jokes. But in a moral allegory this has odd effects; for one thing, it tends to make you like and identify with the source of the humor, in this case the predators. (Thomas, naturally, is humorless.) That’s Bartlett’s intention, of course. The problem is that the suggestion of the audience’s complicity — a suggestion underlined constantly by the title metaphor — is unwarranted. We are only like the vicariously sadistic crowd at a bullfight to the extent that the production itself has put us there. Any exhortation to examine the ethical issues behind the play’s absurdly stacked competition is a case of overreaching. There are no ethical issues. Tony and Isobel’s behavior is too repulsive and unforgivable to engage any. Indeed, the metaphor is so fat and acidic I eventually felt it was starting to reflux. Was the play’s violent scenario actually meant as an argument against cruelty to animals? Alas, no. It’s just cruel for the easy fun of it.
I’m unashamed to say I really like Cock. I didn’t fall for Bartlett’s Bull, though. Perhaps its subtitle should have been The Fishfight Play. Something to do with shooting them in a barrel.
Bull is at 59E59 Theaters through June 2.