Playwright Mike Bartlett has a knack for identifying the grey areas that unnerve us about many subjects. His plays push us to confront uncomfortable realities about our world and society. In “Bull”, Bartlett takes the audience into the world of office politics, bullying and the fight for survival, which often people unwittingly find themselves in at work.
The stage is set centrally, a ring of glass and steel under glaring strip lights. One enters this brightly lit space to a pumping fight track that is belting out anthems such as “eye of the tiger”, which have undoubtedly been used to set the scene at many a corporate “kick-off meeting” around the world. The stage imitates the ubiquitous sterility of the office environment – a harsh place of efficiency, achievement and hard work. It is here the action takes place, on a grey square of carpet, ring fenced by chrome bars and glass panels. Our three contenders wait, suited and booted, to meet the senior management who will decide their fate in light of the company’s imminent downsizing.
Through a razor sharp script the play puts workplace bullying under the microscope as two colleagues gang up on a third to try to ensure their own survival. But Bartlett doesn’t let his audience off lightly; he deliberately avoids stereotypes and clear cut baddies and goodies. He challenges us by making his victim hard to like, a defensive, secretive and unmemorable character.
The play is very astute, making sharp and cruel observations about people’s behaviour and the way that many will do anything to protect their own backs and mindlessly follow anyone who instigates bullying, thus avoiding being bullied themselves.
As with all Bartlett’s plays, Bull is thought-provoking and manages to both shock and amuse. The effect of the dialogue on the audience is dramatic and, like the play, exposes the different reactions towards bullying. Some people stare in horror and distress clearly wondering why would people behave like this and asking themselves why it is funny; others smirk in glee or laugh hysterically relishing the feeling that this is just the way life is, how one gets ahead, after all it’s the survival of the fittest and all that; others hang their heads with guilt (remembering their roles as passive bystanders or unwitting accomplices perhaps); whilst others look on miserably probably having had the difficult task of trying to root out and put an end to such behaviour or even worse having been the brunt of some similar cruelty.
One thing is certain, the play is unsettling and for the majority of people it will raise questions about how one behaves to others and within a group dynamic. The ring side seats may not be coveted for this cruel commentary on modern society but they most certainly will be full.
Bull was applauded a huge success when it ran at the Young Vic in London during the first few months of 2015.
Photography: The image is from the Young Vic’s advertising posters and billboard