BWW Review: BULL is a Riveting, Entertaining Look at Corporate Hell
I first discovered Mike Bartlett when I saw Cock last season. I have been eagerly waiting for more from him because of his wit and his skill at writing dialogue. He has come from relative obscurity 10 years ago to now being a force at the BBC and at England's National Theatre; but at first exposure you know this is a writer whose work is worth seeing. Bartlett is a master at writing realistic dialogue in that black comedy style that is both extremely uncomfortable and hilarious simultaneously. In a way, this work harkens back to The Theatre of Cruelty. The Theatre of Cruelty is a form of theatre developed by avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud, in The Theatre and its Double. When Artaud spoke of cruelty it was not in the sense of violent behavior, but rather the cruelty it takes for actors to show an audience a truth that they do not wish to see. BULL is very much like that in that when you leave the theater you can expect to question your reasons for laughing... and trust me, you will laugh.
BULL begins with Isobel (Suzanne Balling) and Tony (Devin Finn) taunting Thomas (Anders Nerheim) in a way that you can't help but laugh at. But, at a certain point, the tone shifts and the whole dynamic becomes extremely dark and disturbing. BULL is a beautifully minimal play, with only four characters and no back-story whatsoever. You, as an audience are witness to an event that could be taking place anywhere in the corporate world even though this is clearly in a break room or small conference room in England. In a working world full of targets, assessments and job insecurity, Bartlett has given us a look into the state of the business world. The title of this piece, BULL, also has multiple meanings. While it is clearly about bullying; one can also make a case that this is an analogy to bullfighting and idiomatically to an awkward or clumsy person or alternately of the troublemaker, a dangerous person.
This work is fierce, compelling and extremely human. BULL has a simple premise: three people are waiting for their boss for a performance review where one of them will be terminated. From the beginning it is clear that Thomas is a nervous wreck, mostly because the man and woman he's competing with pick on him mercilessly like sharks in the water sensing the blood of wounded prey. It starts with Isobel noting something on his cheek. She then proceeds, along with Tony, to outwit him with razor sharp wit, outmaneuvering him in word games or by changing topic or emphasis. Thomas is swimming with corporate barracudas. Gradually Isobel and Tony obliterate Thomas by having required work prepared for the meeting he wasn't informed of, impaling him on sexual chit-chat he has no hope of matching and generally taunting him about every aspect of his life right down to his name. Without telling you the astonishing ending of this piece; this is a visceral, thought provoking, masterful study of bullying and sadly not a great advert for the human race.
Benjamin Summers has done a superb job directing this piece delivering a taut and riveting master class on how collusion works. I also very much liked the scenic design by him and wife A. Skola Summers and the minimalist clinical coldness of the corporate world it conveys. His choice of music for the piece worked perfectly. Shelby Gebhart's lighting design was also spot-on as were A. Skola Summers costumes.
Three utterly fearless performances drive this production. They keep the adrenaline level high and, at the very end, take it right off the chart. As Thomas, Anders Nerheim exudes the panicky defensiveness of the born loser, making things worse for himself by always rising to the bait. Devin Finn nails the office smooth-talking alpha male Tony; that office worker who always seems, at some level, to be flirting with everyone, regardless of gender. Suzanne Balling as Isobel is absolutely chilling in her portrait of a hardened, conscienceless, systematically sadistic emasculator. Her final scene offers a look into the mindset of a bully that is astonishing in its brutality. Rommel Sulit, delivers a nice portrait of the clueless boss whose sole interest is in avoiding anything that isn't numbers and results.
BULL is a riveting and uncomfortable examination of corporate hell that may have you questioning your reactions for days to come.
BULL by Mike Bartlett
Running time: Approximately One hour with no intermission
BULL, produced by Street Corner Arts, at Hyde Park Theatre (511 W. 43rd St, Austin, TX, 78751) Apr. 08 - Apr. 23, 2016. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets: www.streetcornerarts.org or (512) 298-9776.