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Mike Bartlett’s killer instinct

Isabel Lloyd sits ringside at the Young Vic

Isabel Lloyd | January 19th 2015

Sometimes it’s easier to admire a play than to like it. That was the case with “Bull”, a one-act four-hander by Mike Bartlett (“Cock”, “King Charles III”) that premiered at the Sheffield Crucible Studio in 2013 and opened, with the same excellent cast, at the Young Vic in London last Thursday. The premise is simple—a team of three “Apprentice”-style office workers, head to toe in grim grey businesswear, wait to meet their boss, who is due to “downsize” one of them. None know who it will be, but two of them have a pretty good idea, and will play any sort of destructive psychological game to make sure things go their way. On Soutra Gilmour’s spare, pull-no-punches set, the metaphor is made clear: the three will do verbal battle in a wrestling ring, floored with office carpeting, lit by a harsh square of fluorescent lighting, with a recalcitrant watercooler in one corner. Half the audience stands around the ring; the other half sits in raked seats above, peering claustrophobically down on the three combatants. The game is on: a 55-minute nightmare.

Bartlett has an ear for dialogue that’s perhaps better than anyone else writing in theatre today, and a forensic ability to lay out the push and pull of power, the secret striving for the upper hand, that underpins many human conversations, onstage and off. His delineation of the way bullies constantly shift not only the goalposts, but the ground the match is played on, is subtle, masterful—and unbearable. When the male bully, played with authentic matey menace by Adam James, forced—slowly and with a tender smile on his face—a friendly hug upon his sweating victim (Sam Troughton, like undercooked sausagemeat in a suit), one of the punters ringside fainted.

That’s a testament to the power of the writing, but also to its unrelenting nature. There’s no redemption in this play—the bullies win. The victim, despite fighting back, is destroyed. The female bully’s final, triumphant speech claims that such behaviour is evolutionary, inherent—we destroy the weakest link so that the chain of life can continue. Bartlett may be making a point about what he sees as the poisonous results of unreined capitalism; or he may just believe that’s what people are like. My sense is that he’s a writer so excited by the killer instinctiveness of his writing that he doesn’t worry too much about the meaning. Either way, while you may leave the theatre full of admiration for him, don’t expect to feel good—or even a tiny bit hopeful.

Bull Young Vic, London, to February 14th

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