Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Written by Rebecca Harrison
The cliche, ‘It’s not personal; it’s just business’ finds new, satirical strength in Theatre Group’s production of Bull. Written by Mike Bartlett and first performed in 2011, Bull is a brutal incarnation of office politics. When a team of three colleagues discover the boss is going to fire one of them, the stage becomes a bullring for a harrowing fiasco of manipulation, powerplay and harassment.
Daisy Kakkar’s direction confidently grasps the wide scope of the play’s themes. The production overlays childish games with the more strategic backstabbing of a competitive, professional environment. The sharp, calculating duo, Tony (Matty Edgar) and Isobel (Elizabeth Moon), run sadistic rings around their victim, Thomas (Aaron Garland). At one point, Isobel tries to blackmail Thomas into rubbing his face on Tony’s ‘shithouse’ of a torso. Tony and Isobel’s attacks leave Thomas defeated and eventually manipulate him into the schoolboy who throws a strop in front of the boss, crying, ‘They’re leaving me out!’
Thomas’ defiant morality doesn’t stand a chance against the other characters’ shameless self-interest. Their “dog-eat-dog world” mentality invites a pessimistic view of human nature; and one that it isn’t always easy to dismiss. Isobel, in her final speech, explains why she destroys Thomas. ‘I think it’s instinct’, she says: to crush the weak in order to strengthen the pack.
But the worst part is, that as Thomas’ lip wobbles, and his chest heaves, and he hangs his head with shame, his bullies don’t ever stop. Redemption never comes. Even after Carter (Joel David) fires Thomas, his colleagues continue their taunting. Thomas gets so wound up that he manifests the titular bull, charging repeatedly at the bully-turned-matador Isobel. But, characteristically, she always dodges, leaving Thomas sobbing, jobless and on the floor. To which Isobel simply sighs, looks bored, and walks off stage.
The effect on the audience is palpable and relentless. We seize with indignation as Thomas is backed into corners (Kakkar cleverly stages the scenes so that they draw Thomas away from the centre and into the downstage corners). The stark, black box of a stage effectively invokes a bleak feeling, like that of a hostile playground where bullies are inescapable. There is no relief as we feel the humiliation harpoon out at us. The play makes us recognise some of the worst parts of ourselves mirrored back to us onstage, both in the bullies, and the bullied.
It also, interestingly, makes one forget about the workplace setting and instead pushes the audience to search within themselves for answers to the malicious behaviour onstage. It makes us forget that perhaps the problem is not human nature, but the neoliberal ideology of the market, which precipitates down through its corporations and injects competitiveness into the relationships between the people that operate within its system. Within the play, competitiveness, sabotage and game-playing are rewarded, whereas meritocracy and integrity disintegrate, and are considered naive fictions of an ignorant worldview. This production crafts a stake out of this neoliberal ideology and uses it to puncture repeatedly into the most vulnerable parts of ourselves with unequivocal malice.
Kakkar did very well to get the right tone here. Overdone, the bullies would have felt like pantomime villains. But instead Isobel and Tony are a chilling combination of measured and impassive, respectively. Elizabeth Moon is assured and inscrutable, basking in her own superbness; and Matty Edgar is remarkably vile as Tony, whose chin points as high as Thomas’ head hangs low. He is the quintessential public school boy who charms his boss like he would a school master. Together, they give a masterclass in the art of gaslighting.
Although not on stage for very long, Carter, played by Joel David, brings comic relief and natural charisma to the stage. He is the typical patriarchal boss who expects people to “sort it out” without his help and who sees even the most justified complaints as admissions of weakness. The weight of the show, however, is carried on the shoulders of Aaron Garland as Thomas, who never leaves the stage. This is bittersweet: it's a delight to watch him perform, but I’m convinced that if he were to leave, it would release, however briefly, the chest-tightening pathos that his character clamps on our hearts. This relief, though, Bartlett will not allow.
Overall, Theatre Group’s production of Bull was a sleek 55 minutes of brutalist wit that will emotionally damage its audience. (So, all in all, a must see!)