Thursday 29 January 2015

Bull – Young Vic

[seen 28/01/15]

As it happens, I first saw Bull as a rehearsed/staged reading at the Finborough in 2010. Apparently the piece had initially come into being as a writing exercise that Bartlett had set himself when he got a bit stuck on Cock. Back then, seen as a companion piece to Cock, years before the magisterial triumph of King Charles III, well before the Tory coalition had made Britain nigh-on unliveable, and on a cosy *undressed* stage, it seemed like a pretty benign thing. A short, sharp, Mamet-y burst of bullying on some sort of The Office-style sales team. Stuck into the Young Vic after a Sheffield run last year, in the midst of a freezing January, and while everyone’s bloody miserable anyway, it’s a much harder watch.

Weirdly, there’s not an awful lot to say about the “plot” – or rather, the “dramatic action” – itself. Two workers, who have been bullying a co-worker for ages, intensify their efforts ahead of a meeting/interview when one of them will be made redundant. The outcome is more or less a forgone conclusion. The bullied co-worker has a child and an ex-partner (both unseen), and the loss of his job is going to impact hard on his life.

For the shape that this bullying takes, Bartlett has turned to the bullfight for inspiration. Following hard on the heals of Caroline Horton’s Islands last week, it seems that, merely by coincidence of programming, the bullfight has become 2015’s early go-to image for the way that capitalism destroys the worker. Just as Cock mimics the cockfight (and, as with Cock, the arena is similarly resonant), Bull’s structure very precisely recalls the way the bullfight is conducted, as so horribly described by Horton. The picadors – here the two co-worker bullies (the word “bully” here gets a bit confusing) – stab the poor creature in the back repeatedly, until the matador, here their boss, finishes him off with a few choice flourishes. (Except, as with Horton’s example, the bull tends not to die in the ring, it just looks dead, so the picadors finish the wretched animal off afterwards.)

An interesting question posed by a couple of colleagues is that of complicity. By virtue of having paid to see this play “as entertainment”, what are we saying about ourselves? Well, the bullying is vile, it’s true. And if you were watching it because you like simulations of people being bullied, then I’d suggest more counselling and fewer theatre trips of your own choosing. But no one is watching it for that, are they? We go to see Mike Bartlett’s fizzy writing and a quartet of actors at the top of their game. It’s only pretend, at least in the theatre, and we go to watch it approvingly as a metaphor for the savagery of contemporary capitalism, right?

So, how does it do as a comment on capitalism, or bullying, or bull-fighting? Oddly, it’s the bull-fighting element that seems to map least well, to my mind. Yes, the picadors and the back-stabbing is very clever, but the character of Thomas, the bullied worker, is scarely comparable with the doomed animal of the Spanish bloodsport. I mean, yes, that is an absolutely abhorrent practice, but at least the Spanish have the decency to bullshit (!) a lot about the supposed dignity and magnificence of the beast they’re about to torture. And at least there’s an outside chance that the bull can take down a matador or two before they’re murdered. Here, Sam Troughton’s Thomas is more of a sad-sack fish in a barrel. He also starts out almost entirely unsympathetic. He is, we note, *not* a particularly nice person himself. Perhaps as a consequence of the bullying, or perhaps the initial cause of it. *Of course*, we feel for him as he crumples, but he’s a misogynist and creep, and maybe we should harden our hearts, while still deploring the others’ lack of scruple. No one here, Bartlett decrees, is nice at all. Oddly, this, along with perhaps a natural disinclination of arts-leaning types, toward sympathy for ghastly corporate drones (yeah, I’m being ironic), means this is not a game in which any of us has much investment. Indeed, perhaps the greatest risk the play runs, is that arts types (who, after all, are the only people who watch theatre, right?) will simply wish a plague on all their houses, and be jolly pleased that they don’t have to worry about how expensive their suits are. (Fwiw, not having to worry about conspicuous wealth, and not having to work with cunts is *precisely* why I work in the arts.)

Adam James and Eleanor Matsuura as the picadors, Sam Troughton as the bull, and Neil Stuke briefly as the matador, are uniformly excellent at the chosen fast-paced, action driven style of action. (Although lord knows what Adam did to Mike to be playing his *third* Bartlett villain after My Child and King Charles III). Having seen it done in this eminently suitable style, surrounded by Soutra Gilmour’s apt arena-like space with Christopher Shutt’s sound design (which maybe overstates the bullfight motif in the final moments), obviously I’m curious to know what effect other styles might have on the action, and on our reception of the piece. This version is so *sympathetic* to the text, that it almost feels inevitable: although obviously it isn’t and the fact Clare Lizzimore’s production makes it look so is entirely to her credit.

More broadly, with only The Changeling excepted, Bull adds to the weight of plays currently showing in London that simply seek to stare the state of capitalism in the face and largely despair. I might institute some sort of prize for the first one I leave feeling even remotely optimistic about the future. At the moment, we have a lot of descriptions of the horror, the sorrow and the pity, and next to nothing that sees any way out. (I’m not saying theatres should stage policy documents, or that critiques of capitalism have to be uplifting or optimistic, but three pieces suggesting we might as well all give up because humanity is so rotten to the core in a near-row (and it’s not like The Changeling is exactly brimming with optimism about humanity) starts to feel a bit: well, y’know...)

So, yes, “capitalism brings out the worst in people”. Got that. I’m dangerously close to saying that we might have started to hit the Gulf War II wall with The Crisis of Global Capitalism now. But fuck. What else is there that’s worth even thinking about? And at least the approaches are admirably various...

[stop now. right-o]

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