You file in to a theatre configured like a boxing ring. The sound system is blaring Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”. Is this a sneak peek of the Rocky musical that’s been a hit in Hamburg and is hoping to be big on Broadway next year? Not quite. This ring serves as the setting for another kind of combat, as suggested by the title of the piece: Bull.
Written by Mike Bartlett, Bull is a companion to his more detailed work Cock, which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2009 and had a hit production last year off-Broadway. True to its name, Bull, with a running time of 55 minutes, has charged into New York after its February premiere in Sheffield, UK, complete with its three principals – sales executives played by Adam James, Sam Troughton and Eleanor Matsuura. Only Carter, their boss, played with gruff good sense by Neil Stuke, is new to the team.
Standing throughout, as do some members of the audience, around the railing of the playing area, the actors enact a corporate bullfight, with Thomas (Troughton) being taunted by Tony (James) and Isobel (Matsuura). They poke fun at him for his dandruff, his flabby body, a spot on his face. They tell him he will be the one fired by the boss, who is looking to make cuts. Eventually, we know, the wounded bull will lash out.
We also know that, just as surely as a gun on the wall of a Chekhov play will be fired by evening’s end, the sole furniture in Bull, a water cooler, will have to spill its liquid. And that when it does it will be a symbolic stand-in for blood. The conceit of Bull, however, is that in the corporate world all colour is drained away: the characters all wear drab grey.
There’s scant emotional colour in the acting either, which is appropriate. This monotony is the world bequeathed to us by The Apprentice and by the plays and movies of Neil LaBute, whose depictions of corporate cruelty have had a degree of influence I am beginning to rue. But I can’t deny that Bull is a very sharp piece of work, and well-directed by Clare Lizzimore.