It was plain even on the rehearsed reading debut of Mike Bartlett’s play in 2010 that, even in the unlikely event that it was not explicitly conceived as such, it would make an excellent double bill with Cock by the same writer. Its premiere full staging now clarifies the governing metaphor in a similar way. Like Cock, Bull is staged in an arena of combat: more of a wrestling ring in Soutra Gilmour’s design, with the audience raked steeply on all four sides and some standing just outside the square playing area. However, the structure of the piece itself resembles a bullfight.
Where Cock is about personal power-plays, Bull is about professional ones. As three white-collar employees gather for a meeting with the boss which will result in the sack for one of them, it is soon apparent that the two sharper and more assured candidates are working together to goad and play on the insecurities of the third. They are, in effect, picadors.
When the boss enters and sides with them, he is performing the role of the matador; Thomas the bull is not yet dead, but the decisive blows have been dealt. In the final phase of Clare Lizzimore’s production (which tours after this home-venue run), the poor chap is reduced to bellowing wordlessly and flailing around, making the taurine parallel more apparent still.
Sam Troughton’s diffident edginess is nicely exploited and ratcheted up by Adam James as the contemptuous, mocking Tony and Eleanor Matsuura as the more coolly disdainful Isobel; Adrian Lukis’s Mr Carter is one of those bosses who seem to think it a waste of time to allow anyone else to complete a sentence.
For me, the final impact of the brief piece (a mere 50 minutes) came after its close, when a friend remarked that he believed many of the audience were rooting for the picadors, buying into their rationale about culling a weaker member of the tribe. In contrast I had not only been sympathising with the luckless Thomas, but had found it inconceivable that a spectator might morally tolerate the conduct meted out to him. Bartlett and Lizzimore’s deftness lies in not just accommodating but facilitating such diametrically opposing interpretations.