The empty boxing ring of Soutra Gilmour’s stark stage cleverly evokes conflict even before Mike Bartlett’s Bull begins. With the front few rows removed from The Young Vic’s in the round production, many audience members stand, some hanging off the metal barrier surrounding the arena-like stage.
With Peter Mumford’s harsh overly bright stadium style lighting and thumping motivation music used before the play starts, audience anticipation is heightened for a fight. Only a water cooler in one corner and familiar generic carpet seem oddly out of place, hinting at the play’s office setting.
The tension between Thomas (Sam Troughton) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) is evident the moment both enter the “ring”. The verbal sparring is mutual but it’s quickly clear Thomas is on the ropes. Superior in every way, Isobel toys with Thomas the way a bored cat plays with an injured bird. Thomas valiantly tries to keep up but, rapidly realising his inadequacy, every insult seems to visibly crumple him.
The entrance of Adam James’ swaggeringly sadistic Tony could not come at a worse point for Thomas. Tony immediately joins Isobel in her sadistic game, a game in which one player doesn’t understand the rules and struggles to keep up.
Like nasty schoolchildren tormenting a weaker classmate, the childish cruelty becomes increasingly vindictive and difficult to watch. Audience laughter at occasionally amusing insults hesitates, gets more infrequent. At first almost silly, put downs become increasingly personal. Alliterative sentences are thrown like darts designed to hurt and they do – you feel for Thomas’ struggling, vainly, to survive.
The entire cast is pitch perfect. Matsuura’s Isobel resembles a beautiful deadly animal – you want to look away but remain fascinated by her viciousness unable to avert your gaze.
Troughton’s performance as the tragic Thomas is almost too painful to watch. He plays straight into his colleagues’ hands, becoming increasingly hysterical and paranoid after their boss, Neil Stuke’s cool, collected and equally cruel Carter enters. As it quickly becomes clear Carter is playing too for Thomas, the game is lost. Facing all three in a wall of hostility and complete indifference, his career disintegrates.
Clare Lizzimore’s taut direction is superb. Using the minimal space to devastating effect, the action is relentless and the production’s every phrase painful. Even worse than the verbal venom in Bartlett’s savage play are his Pinter-like pauses. Almost eternal they swallow poor Thomas, further wearing him down.
Despite Thomas’ career crucifixion, this humiliation still isn’t enough for his antagonists. Their poorly pretended pity is even crueller, the final scene delivering a hammer blow.
Although brief, nearly an hour of non-stop spite makes Bartlett’s Bull an emotionally exhausting albeit, timely, comment on today’s target driven, professionally preoccupied world.