Mike Bartlett’s Bull is subtitled The Bullfight Play, but the four characters in Clare Lizzimore’s production clash for 55 minutes in what appears to be a boxing ring, with a water cooler in one corner. Outside the ring, audience members stand (there are also seats around the room). As Bartlett’s characters confront each other, it gradually becomes clear that Sam Troughton’s bespectacled, apprehensive Thomas has been singled out for slaughter, and his office mates are the picadors in the process.
Unlike the colorful participants in a bullfight, the three men and one woman are all dressed in gray or charcoal (costumes and sets are by Soutra Gilmour), but what ensues in this businesslike atmosphere is nevertheless blood sport, as Thomas has his worst fears confirmed: his co-workers Tony (Adam James) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) are ganging up on him to have him removed from their “team”—Tony is team leader. They have located his weaknesses and exploited them; they have also sabotaged him by withholding information for an important meeting with their superior.
Isobel has a go at him first, softening him up by implying Thomas is unprepared: He has something on his face, his suit doesn’t look good, he’s unprepared to meet the boss, Carter, who is expected shortly. When James’s smooth, boisterous Tony joins her, he underlines her criticisms. To Thomas, though, it’s clear that they are in league against him. Their mind games are ruthless, careering from apparent camaraderie and beneficence to outright belittlement. “You’re like any physically odd man," says Isobel, "talking too much, strange gestures, yapping away, does get annoying, but essentially you're harmless." Or, "You know you can get stuff for hair loss?" She also suggests that his aversion to drinking will certainly hurt him with Carter (Neil Stuke).
Indeed, Isobel is as ruthless and nasty as any Strindbergian female. When she claims to have been abused by her father, it’s never clear if she really was abused: she may have invented the story to exploit the moment or not. She radiates a certain cold-bloodedness. It's easy to believe that she would use actual sexual abuse to her competitive advantage to undermine Thomas’s confidence. The stakes are ratcheted higher as Tony and Isobel lure Thomas into touching Tony's bare chest—Isobel puts her head against it first—in a homoerotic moment that, in Troughton’s performance of ache and desperation, is obviously humiliating. James is equally superb as the bristlingly confident and ruthless Tony, smiling broadly as he enjoys the game.
Slowly but inexorably, Thomas loses control as the story moves straightforwardly to the arrival of Carter, when Isobel and Tony denounce their colleague as incompetent. The plot is not particularly original—the business world and its sharks have been portrayed before in plays like Other People’s Money and Glengarry Glen Ross, though perhaps not quite at this primal, Darwinian level. Still, Bartlett repeatedly refers to school and childishness, and his portrait of the business world suggests the players in it are no more than childish bullies in a playground. "Promise," Isobel and Tony say to reassure Thomas; it's a childish refrain, and and the astute Thomas even responds, "We're not at school."
Lizzimore paces the show adeptly, and the intensity builds as Thomas, like a wounded bull, thrashes around trying to escape his tormenters. Stuke's Carter is equally uncaring about Thomas's ordeals with his colleagues, spouting boilerplate as he's about to can one of them: "When it comes down to it we're people aren't we, all of us, every single one and we should be treated as human beings." But then he can't remember Thomas's name, and when he does address Thomas, obliviously calls him "Tom"—a point that offends Thomas's dignity.
In last season's Cock, also by Bartlett, a similar arena staging was used, and the title was understood to be a shortened form of a gutter term; it's clear as Bull progresses that it's less about a bullfight than about a dehumanizing business atmosphere where offensive matter is callously slung—more than that, where tooth and claw are used to cull the herd. It's not a terribly original social comment, but it's vividly brought to life in this production.