Theater review by Helen Shaw. 59E59 (see Off Broadway). By Mike Bartlett. Dir. Clare Lizzimore. With ensemble cast. 55mins. No intermission.
Even in Shakespeare’s heyday, the Globe couldn’t outsell the bearbaiting pit down the street. Sorry, poets, but that’s just what the people like—blood on the sand. In savvy fashion, Mike Bartlett’s vicious comedy Bull caters to our baser instincts with an allegorical deathmatch between business colleagues. The odds against our protagonist are stacked from the outset: Rumple-faced sad sack Thomas (Sam Troughton) never quite gets his footing against opponents Tony (Adam James), a shark in wolf’s clothing, and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura), a snaky number with a talent for undermining. (“Oh!” she says faux-sympathetically to already-terrified Thomas. “You’ve got something on your face!”)
As the title makes clear, we’re here to watch a bit of sport. Bartlett’s similarly Darwinian Cock (in which he goaded a love triangle into increasing cruelties) had a bit more meat on its bones, a fiercer critique that could ring uncomfortably true. Bull wants to capture us only for a moment, urging us to admire the sleek acting muscles on its performers, to enjoy Troughton’s astonishing ability to slide visibly down the food chain. As the three dance attendance on boss Carter (Neil Stuke), the audience leans close on the railings of designer Soutra Gilmour’s bullfighting-plaza-cum-boxing-ring. We find ourselves watching our fellows’ upturned, delighted faces, despairing more at our own avidity than at the well-choreographed cruelties onstage.—Helen Shaw