Directed by Clare Lizzimore
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Lifeboat Ethics collides with and colludes with evolutionary theory’s “survival of the fittest” and places the audience adrift in a moral sea in Mike Bartlett’s “Bull” currently playing at 59E59 Theater B.
On the surface, “Bull” seems to be about office downsizing drama. Tony’s (Adam James) team of two – Isabel (Eleanor Matsuura) and Thomas (Sam Troughton) – are a triad soon to become a dyad. Two of them will be spared their positions in their company, one cast out into the utter darkness of a job search replete with the weeping and gnashing of teeth which accompanies the realization there are no jobs to be found in an economic culture in which downsizing far outpaces hiring.
Isabel and Tony have determined that Thomas is the one to go and have concocted a diabolical scheme to push Carter so far to the edge of ego strength that when Carter (Neil Stuke) the company boss enters to announce his downsize decision, Thomas presents himself as a helpless, whining victim of bullying. When Thomas attempts to defend himself by making “an official complaint of harassment and bullying,” Carter suggests that Thomas should simply “stand up for himself.” Thomas continues to protest that Isabel and Tony are attacking him; however, ultimately he is let go.
Beneath the surface, Mike Bartlett’s intriguing play is all about rhetoric and the power of persuasion. Rhetorical techniques (tropes) can be used for good or for ill and the audience here has the rare opportunity to see persuasiveness at it best or worst depending on the audience member’s point of view.
The pre-performance adrenaline-pumping music and Soutra Gilmour’s innovative design establish the parameters of the struggle: this is a boxing match – or rather a gladiator match – of epic proportions and nothing less than the death of a scapegoat will satisfy the onlookers. Tony leaves Isabel behind to “mop up” after Thomas is fired and the exchange between the two is as exhilarating as it is vile. Isabel lashes out at Thomas proclaiming, “If we see someone who’s going to bring down the whole tribe or culture because they’re stupid or slow or weak or thin or short or ugly or has dandruff or something you have the desire somewhere deep within you to take them down first to get rid of them and strengthen the tribe.” Eleanor Matsuura (Isabel) and Sam Troughton (Thomas) make this match so intense the audience reacts with visible discomfort.
As the game rules become crystal clear, when, at Tony’s bidding, Isobel stays behind in the ring to “mop up,” those standing at the rail are visibly shaken. Some, who were totally engaged during the first forty minutes, backed away from the set as far as they could: others stared in disbelief as Isabel excoriated Thomas leaving him face down, perhaps dead, in a set flooded with water.
Perhaps it is true that human beings really cannot stand one another and will do whatever needs to be done to climb ladders of success over the backs of others caring little for them or their demise. “Bull” raises the possibility that this might be true and that is no bull.