“Yes, they say nothing comes easy. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t feel this good.”
Forget Patrick Bateman. Housing developer Redrow has reinvented the cold-blooded, psychopathic city hotshot for a rapidly gentrifying London. Their latest advert (scrapped after a hail of online criticism and ridicule) promises the ambitious City boy everything he could want – including one of Redrow’s perfectly proportioned luxury apartments – provided he’s happy to crush the competition. “Make the impossible possible,” the male (naturally) voiceover seductively intones. “To rise and rise.”
Redrow’s ad is the sleek, aspirational face of a cutthroat post-credit crunch Britain. Mike Bartlett‘s short but bracing play Bull is its grubby underside. The title is a reference to the bullfight: an intricate and bloody display of power. Bartlett’s corporate equivalent, staged by Clare Lizzimore and Soutra Gilmour in a spare, claustrophobic arena formation, is the desperate grapple for jobs in the face of downsizing. Three employees are waiting to meet the boss; only two can return to their desks. It’s the Hunger Games of office politics.
Bleak as it sounds, Bartlett’s play is viciously entertaining, just in the grim, guilty way that The Apprentice is entertaining. Tony, Isobel and Thomas circle one another like animals, sniffing for weaknesses and lashing out with language. The insults are often bitterly funny (“stop shuffling around like an autistic penguin,” Isobel snaps at Thomas), but Bull‘s laughs are just as likely to sour in the mouth. It’s hilarious until it’s not.
As the nervous one-upmanship escalates, it soon becomes clear which employee is primed for the chop. Thomas, ridiculed for everything from his suit to his receding hairline, is the weak one in the pack, and the Darwinian logic of the workplace – like that of the schoolyard – dictates that he has to be brought down. It’s playground bullying, pure and simple, but with higher stakes and sharper uniforms.
In the Young Vic’s taut production, this all unfolds in swift but tense fashion. Lizzimore directs the cruel back-and-forth at a machine-gun rattle, occasionally punctuating the rapid dialogue with precise, painful silences. The verbal equivalent of a staring contest, it’s all about who snaps first. That person is, inevitably, Sam Troughton’s tightly wound, helplessly jittering Thomas, a man on the verge of eruption. As his opponents, Adam Jones and Eleanor Matsuura are hard and shiny as glass, the former doing battle with superficial mateyness, the latter with icy manipulation.
Gilmour’s minimal, antiseptic design is as deliberately impersonal and unspecific as Bartlett’s office setting. The precise nature of the job these three individuals are fighting for doesn’t really matter; what’s important is the lengths they’re prepared to go to. As an audience, meanwhile, we are positioned uncomfortably close to the action, with those standing at the front placed near enough to see the perspiration. We could intervene, but crucially we don’t.
Anything and everything – family, trauma, physical appearance – can be used as a weapon in the armoury of advancement. Make no mistake, Bartlett’s characters are fucking brutal. But worst of all, it’s not just a simple tale of office bullying. Bull is a whole ideology in microcosm; a waking nightmare of ruthless individualism. Scrap that – it’s beyond individualism. This is a world in which, like the hero of Redrow’s video, you need to be “more than individual”.
Bartlett’s play depicts this world in nasty, close-up detail, but the savagery is only ever presented. In a reversal of usual dramatic logic, there is no twist; the inevitable simply ensues, swiftly and excruciatingly. Formally, the production – like the master matadors it places centre stage – doesn’t put a foot wrong. But in its calculated perfection, in its vicious portrayal of a game it leaves unchallenged, it’s both enraging and devastating.
The corporate dystopia of Bull represents the real “aspiration nation”. And those who do rise and rise will find at their feet not the world, as Redrow promises, but the crumpled bodies of the countless Thomases who have to be crushed on the way up. That’s the choice: heel poised to trample those below, or face down by the water cooler.
Well fuck that.
Photo: Carol Rosegg.