9. BULL (May 17, 2013)
Mike Bartlett’s BULL, another entry in the annual Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59, takes its title from its concern with adult bullying and from the notion that office politics in the modern corporate world resembles the cruel and relentless world of the bullfighting ring. In fact, inside the program, but not on the cover, the play carries the subtitle: “The Bullfight Play.”
The same dramatist is responsible for last season’s COCK, which was known as The Cockfight Play, and was staged in a theatre designed to look like a cockfighting arena. For some reason, however, Soutra Gilmore's much discussed set for BULL, a magnetic 50-minute exercise in Darwinian ruthlessness, brought here by England’s Sheffield Theatres, resembles a boxing ring more than it does a bullfighting arena. The space in Theatre B has been completely rearranged from its typical proscenium orientation (technically, “end stage” because there is neither proscenium or wings) so that the center of the room contains a raised, carpeted square surrounded on each side by metal railings holding glass partitions in place. The ring is sandwiched between two raised sets of bleachers, one on either side, and audience members either sit in these or stand around the ring. The only prop is a water cooler in one corner. Overhead, a bank of four fluorescent lighting fixtures, arranged in a square, stands ready to illuminate the space. Before the play begins, the loudspeaker blares "Eye of the Tiger," and an announcer's voice, sounding like one you might hear at a boxing match, asks the audience to turn off all electronic devices.
Thomas (Sam Troughton) is nervously waiting for his boss, Carter (Neil Stuke), to arrive with news as to which member of his office team is to be fired. The slightly nerdy Thomas is accompanied by the beautiful Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura), whose sculpturally prominent cheekbones, tightly drawn back hair worn in a ponytail, and formfitting jacket and skirt suggest knifelike efficiency and determination. They are joined by the buff and handsome Tony (Adam James) and the game is on. Isobel and Tony stab away at Thomas, belittling and disorienting him with sarcasm and various passive-aggressive maneuvers, readying him for his confrontation with Carter; when that happens, he erupts in frustration at his treatment and thereby seals his doom. The play ends as it began, with Isobel and Thomas alone on the stage, and Thomas, like a dying bull, flailing wildly at Isobel, the lithe and agile matador, until he crashes into the water cooler, sending a stream of water across the floor, filling the ring, as he lies face down in it. It is not clear if he’s dead or simply unconscious, but Isobel, in a final gesture of magnanimous victory, places a bottle of wine at his head and the play is over.
The play, which has been compared to THE LORD OF THE FLIES because of the nastiness of its competitive characters, is ugly, of course, but completely compelling, both because of the horrific cruelty (softened by moments of artificial bonhomie) it uncovers in the workplace as well as its precisely calibrated direction and acting. I mistakenly arrived at the theatre an hour and a half before curtain time, so I found a couch in one of the nearby Bloomingdale’s women’s clothing sections, and read the script, which I’d received in my press packet. The script contains no stage directions at all, and says there are no props; it doesn’t even mention the water cooler, which makes the work of director Clare Lizzimore that much more impressive. The acting of the four member cast, all dressed in dark business attire, is in the best British tradition of perfectly articulated, rapidly spoken, carefully timed speech, mingling a surface of hypocritical good humor with an underlying tone of threat. No one at all is likable, neither the aggressively defensive Thomas, nor his picking, stabbing, and lancing coworkers, nor the business-first, humanity later Carter, but, despite the obvious artificiality of the play’s concept and the fact that the situation enacted (despite its underlying truth) would be unlikely in any real corporate setting, the characters always manage to remain real and believable. The ensemble, in other words, is priceless, and, if I single out Sam Troughton’s Thomas for special commendation, it probably owes more to the demands of his role as the bullied bull than because of his superior acting skills.
For some reason, I had trouble finding someone to see this play with me, so I went alone. Perhaps it’s because the NY Times was less than pleased with the play. Whatever the reason, BULL is the best new play and production (I don’t count the transfer of NATASHA, etc.) I’ve seen so far this season. And that’s no bull.