Bull      Maria Theatre     28 December 2015

“Tell a tale of cock and bull” warble characters in Yeoman of the Guard, the most serious of Gilbert and Sullivan’s hit operettas. “Tell a tale of Cock!” says one; “Tell a tale of Bull!” rejoins the other. Mike Bartlett appears to have taken the instruction to heart, having penned two one Act plays: one called Cock; the other Bull.

Cock had a successful season at the Royal Court and then played on Broadway. Bull was first produced in Sheffield in 2013 and that production also transferred to the Young Vic (it won an Olivier Award) and Broadway. Now playing at the Young Vic’s Maria Theatre is a further revival of that production, happily still presided over by the original creative team, led by Clare Lizzimore.

If anything, this revival raises, yet again, the question of why someone has not staged a double bill of both plays, for while Bull is a remarkable and intense hour of theatrical hi-jinks, the possibilities a double-bill with Cock would offer are real. Both plays look at the modern male and his relationships. Cock deals with personal relationships; Bullwith professional ones. But there are synergies between both, and, as Bull makes plain, professional and personal can be entwined.

Equally, though, in slang circles, the words cock and bull can be interchangeable: both can mean a type of man, usually a liar or a figure of scorn; both can sometimes mean rubbish or nonsense. Sexual connotations surround both words too. Bartlett plays with all these meanings in both plays, but Bull is focussed almost entirely on issues of modern society: lies, contempt, sexual innuendo and power and, ultimately, what it is to be a man.

Set in the glamorous meeting room of some nameless corporate monolith, Bull concerns a sales team attending a meeting set so that a decision can be made about which member of a three person team will be terminated because of tough economic times. From the outset, tensions are high.

It becomes clear, over the course of the play, that two of the team members, Tony and Isobel, have conspired to ensure that Thomas, the member of the team they feel is their inferior, will be chosen for termination. They have withheld vital information from him and have whispered and schemed in the corridors of power to ensure their own survival. Not content with that, they work assiduously, in the minutes leading up to the arrival of their boss, Carter, to humiliate, disorient and destabilise Thomas.

Like two sleek black panthers tearing at a disabled goat, Tony and Isobel play with Thomas, their eyes gleaming with malice, their perfect teeth flashing behind rictus grins, their trim, taut and terrifically honed and dressed bodies lithe, flexing, ready for a death rattle. They are the personification of amoral self-serving Dementors: happy to suck the life from Thomas to achieve their ends.

Carter, the boss whose decision will seal the fate of one of the trilogy, is an arrogant and indifferent supremo. He enters the killing field much like a rogue lion, indifferent about what the panthers are doing, at first, but then, through laziness or because he can’t be bothered to care, takes the simplest course, and delivers the coup de grâce. This is very much the modern corporate jungle, where peacocks and baboons can masquerade as effective panthers, a dumb ox can pass for a raging bull, and the hard-working boar will always be for the slaughter.

What Bartlett achieves in a dazzling fifty-five or so minutes of verbal volleyball is quite remarkable. The language is crisp, lucid, and smart reeking of contemporaneity. Tony and Isobel speak in phrases stewed in acid. Everyone knows people who talk like Tony and Isobel or worse, want to be people like Tony or Isobel. These are the children of the Greed is Good generation and they grew up believing in a sausage-factory world where everyone was as shiny and perfectly formed as their Armani shoes, where conformity means supremacy, where individuality and emotions are despised, where betrayal and disloyalty is a badge of honour and where sex, money and prestige substitute for love, honour and decency.

Bartlett’s particular triumph here is that he writes the most offensive characters in ways which are almost irresistible; it is barely possible to feel disgust for these characters, especially as played here by the dashing Max Bennett, the luminous Susannah Fielding and the craggy, off-hand executioner that is Nigel Lindsay. Charm oozes – and I do mean oozes – from every pore and orifice of both Bennett and Fielding as they weave their razor-wire web around the hapless Thomas, a subdued Marc Wootton, ensnaring and blinding him with softly spoken phrases, seemingly rational arguments, ‘facts’ which can’t be tested, ‘playful’ games and taunts; indeed, at several points Soutra Gilmour’s splendid set could be a schoolyard as easily as a boxing ring, a bullfighting arena, or a gladiatorial ring.

The humour here is savage, but unavoidable. Some laugh because they recognise themselves; some laugh because the only way they deal with the horror of what is happening on stage is by laughing; some laugh because they think the situation Bartlett has contrived is far-fetched or ridiculous. But, at some point here, everyone is likely to laugh. It is a real measure of Bartlett’s skill as a writer that he can make serious topics – essentially, the disintegration of goodness as a force in society and the reversion of man to base animal instincts – capable of evoking real laughter. It is bravura writing.

When I first saw this play in Sheffield, the role of Thomas was played by Sam Troughton, altogether differently from the way Wootton tackles the character here. Troughton looked more physically alike the actors playing Tony and Isobel there and he managed to keep alive the possibility that Carter’s decision, when it came, would not go against him. This led to a tense and almost “Whodunit?” outcome as one wondered who would put a foot wrong and when and how.

Wootton approaches the part entirely differently. His Thomas seems resigned to his fate; rather like a convicted killer sentenced to execution, he argues the toss a little with his tormentors/warders, he tries to assert himself, but there is a deeply ingrained sense of acceptance of his fate which is almost palpable. He might not be as fit as Tony or as sharp as Isobel, but he is big and capable of rage. What would happen if he snapped?

At first, it appeared as though Wootton had missed a trick here, that Troughton’s choices (and casting) were the correct ones. But, on reflection, that is not so. While it seems to me that Troughton’s approach is preferable, there is nothing wrong with Wootton’s approach and, indeed, it demonstrates the flexibility of the writing and the characters. Wootton’s big lumbering bear is just as interesting as Troughton’s gulping and ragged hyena; while it is clear that Wootton’s Thomas will lose the battle, it is far from clear how that will happen or what other casualties there may be. Uncertainty of outcome is still a tangible force in the playing.

There is a particularly awful scene which Wootton handles impeccably. Bennett’s Tony whips up his expensive tailored white linen shirt and exposes his gym-aficionado tanned chest and challenges Thomas to place his face against his bare torso. It is as bizarre a request as might be imagined and the rationale for it is uncertain. Does Tony think that Thomas fancies him and would not be able to disguise that? Does Tony think that if he gets Thomas to do as he says he will have humiliated him so much that we will be no further credible threat? Or does Tony josh about with his clone-like mates in this fashion and the point is to demonstrate just how far away from the “in” crowd Thomas is? Any or all of these possibilities might be right – and there could be other reasons.

Wootton conveys the stupidity of the situation as well as his fear of it. He sees it as a trap; he just is not quite sure what will spring it, bring the clamps down around his neck. He balances the possible hope that acceding might give him some credibility with Tony against the intractable coldness of the watchful Isobel. He refuses, hesitates, refuses, hesitates, considers the options, refuses, questions and finally decides. It is near agony to watch this sequence; humiliation has no more perfect articulation than this scene.

All the while Wootton struggles and is further debilitated, Bennett stands firm, smiling his dazzling smile, radiating a white-cold charm, baring his torso yet making you believe that it is Thomas who is behaving irrationally. In the background, Fielding’s black-hearted Isobel watches proceedings with a faux wide-eyed innocence, a malevolent bemusement. Is she worse than Tony for not intervening? When the scene is over, it is debatable which of the three characters has debased themselves more. Again, Bartlett’s writing is remarkable.

Bennett and Fielding are immaculate in their roles. Repellent and compelling at once, utterly beautiful (voice, body, movement) and enticing and comforting as they dance their way around their victim and each other – because there is no such thing as a dependable allegiance here; betrayal is a constant possibility. Bennett in particular has the surface appeal of the devil incarnate down pat here; how he makes the ghastly Tony likeable is frightening and mysterious – but he does.

Fielding is more subtle about her villainy and subterfuge than Bennett, which perfectly suits her character. If she could arrange for Tony to be shown the door as well as Thomas she would, and Fielding makes that absolutely clear, just as she makes you wonder whether her Isobel and Bennett’s Tony will have a lot of champagne and cocaine fuelled sex after the meeting is done (either to celebrate or to move forward some other machination). Fielding is so beautiful, duplicity seems unfeasible. Yet, it is also undeniably constant. While there is no doubt about her feminine wiles and talents, Fielding’s Isobel effortlessly plays in the world of men – and wins.

Lindsay does a first-rate job of bringing life to Carter, the not-really-a-Boss-more-a-Shyster-with-a-bazooka who makes the final decision about Thomas’ fate. He barely disguises his contempt for both Bennett’s Tony and Fielding’s Isobel – he comes from different stock – but equally does not takes the time to understand the position into which Thomas has been placed by his colleagues. His brusque, agitated unease is pitch-perfect and he cleverly permits one moment of possibility that Carter might cotton on to Tony’s actions and deal with Thomas fairly. The light that flashes in Lindsay’s eyes at that point unnerves Bennett’s Tony momentarily and, just for a second, time stands still. The resumption of usual business merely emphasises the stark nature of chance and choice.

There is nothing not to like about this production. Gilmour’s design is perfect: you sit on the benches overlooking the purpose-built arena or you stand close enough to the outer ropes to feel the splashes of water when Thomas uproots the water cooler and flails about in its liquid carnage. The sense of a bull being constantly wounded by a spectacularly dressed toreador is never far. Peter Mumford’s lighting is baleful and supportive in turns, equal, in each instance, to the mood and tone set by Lizzimore and her performers.

This is first-rate theatre. Engaging, entertaining and quite, quite disturbing.


Five stars

Bull - Review
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.