Mike Bartlett is out for blood. A few years ago, whilst working abroad on a playwriting exchange in Mexico, the 34-year-old playwright from Abingdon, Oxfordshire found himself ringside at a Spanish bullfight. “It was unlike anything I’d seen before”, he tells me. “It was a blood-ritual. So it was about something dying. There was literally blood on the sand”. Despite the grizzly nature of this arcane spectacle (or perhaps because of it), Bartlett found his imagination spurred on by the experience of being a spectator: “We don’t really get that sort of thing anymore, but historically, audiences flocked to see public executions and the torment and torture of animals and people. And it made me think: what is the play related to that experience?”
The play in question became Bull – a short, sharp and savage three-hander in which a group of corporate employees slug it out for survival in the hope of dodging the axe and holding onto their job. First staged at the Sheffield Crucible in 2013, and subsequently produced in New York, Bull’s vision of boardroom bloodletting has now arrived at the Young Vic, one of two London openings this year (his second, Game, opens at the Almeida in March). Though it is sometimes viewed as a companion piece to his earlier 2009 Royal Court hit, Cock (no sniggering), Bull is very different beast altogether declares Bartlett: “It’s a very different play. There are similarities, but Cock is more like a cockfight. It’s like a sport, you don’t know who is going to win. But Bull is about power; it’s about taking someone down. It’s a much more brutal piece of work. But hopefully still funny”.
Brutal but funny is something Bartlett has earned a reputation for being pretty good at. Early plays like My Child (2007), Contractions (2008) and Cock (stop it) are replete with bleak humor, spiky dialogue and emotional game playing. Many of these plays are recognizable for their characters saw-toothed exchanges, a result of Bartlett’s own rapidly intuitive writing style: “You’re trying to write at the speed of thought, so that the characters are speaking and acting without you having too much control. If you slow it down, I find that as a playwright you get in the way and you start becoming too conscious with it. You want the characters to know things you don’t. You want them to surprise you. You want them to lie to you.”
The art of lying is something the characters in Bull are particular well versed in. The play is full deceitfulness, backstabbing and psychological mind-games, and the characters are all too willing to use whatever lies at their disposal to score points over their opponent. Like skilled torero’s thrashing their red capes and luring the hapless animal to its eventual doom, Isobel and Tony run rings around Thomas in a nasty yet hilarious dance of death. The cutthroat tactics of office-politics becomes a Darwinian battle for survival and Bartlett toys with our unease at feeling so thoroughly entertained by such a punishing display. In this post-recession world of ours, with its associated cost cutting and redundancies, this dog-eat-dog ethos is a stark reality for many. “I think it’s one that a lot of people have to confront every day when they get up and go to work. London is full of people who have to put on a suit, get on the tube, go to an office and win.”
This idea of winners and losers is an underlying theme in Bartlett’s writing. In Bull, the Darwinian struggle to survive is played out in the unfolding conflict between Isobel, Thomas and Tony as they each await a meeting with their boss, Carter; a meeting which will decide the fate of who gets to keep bringing home the bacon and who gets hung out to dry. It’s a recognizable scenario, not a million miles away from something you might see on The Apprentice, and indeed it is the world of reality television that Bartlett returns to in discussing his thought process behind the writing: “There’s a definite trope of cruelty that has crept into television. I remember seeing a show that Chris Tarrant presented where they showed clips of Japanese people eating bugs and doing really horrible things to each other. The whole point of putting that on British television was to make us go, ‘Look at those crazy Japanese guys!’. But now we have I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here which does those exact same cruel things to people, every night of the week, to an almost family audience.”.
Throughout our conversation, Bartlett refers repeatedly to ‘ritual’ in describing the world of Bull. The ritual inherent in a bullfight, marked by the ceremonial skewering of the horned beast in front of a baying crowd, has a prescribed outcome. Likewise, Bull plays out as a ritual unfolding in real-time, as we, the audience, witness the dithering Thomas being shoved from pillar to post by Isobel and Tony. What’s more, there is a chilling sense of complicity inherent in the audiences’ relationship to the unfolding action, a feeling that is strongly reinforced by designer Soutra Gilmour’s enclosed arena of polished glass and stainless steel. As with all his plays, Bartlett takes precise care over how the audience is positioned: “If you have a good designer, they follow the clues of the drama and the way in which the play wants to be seen. It’s not a long play – it’s only an hour – so you want to preserve the intensity. You want them [the audience] leaning forward into the action, making the gesture of taking part. All those faces are pressed up against this world and pressed up against the central character – putting more and more pressure on them.”
In order to bring Bull’s combative energy to life, director Claire Lizzimore and designer Soutra Gilmour chose to stage the play in a ringside-style formation. The audience quite literally surrounds the stage, forming a mass of bodies more reflective a wrestling stadium or boxing arena then a typical night out at the theatre. For Bartlett, it is essential that those watching Bull experience a degree of collusion in what is taking place on-stage: “What’s interesting to me is realizing how many people do it, and how much in my life I’ve done it. You’ve become the bully without realizing it. If you think about what you’ve done in life; how often are you actually making a joke at someone else’s expense? Do you really think no one suffers because of that? All those questions I think are there at the beginning, and it’s just about taking them to their logical conclusion.”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Bull lies in Bartlett’s refusal of karmic retribution. There is little redemption for the Thomases of this world, the play seems to suggest, and the closing moments are particularly unsparing. “It’s kind of a bleak view of the world, but I don’t think it’s an untruthful one”, affirms Bartlett. If you go into Bull expecting the bad guys to get what’s coming to them and the good guys to win the day, well, you’re in for a shock. But you will definitely be entertained. And you’ll definitely laugh your head off. You just might not like yourself very much for doing so afterwards.
Bull is at the Young Vic, London, until 14th February 2015
Exeunt readers can get 25% off Mike Bartlett’s award-winning script to Bull – just use voucher code BULLEXEUNT when you order through the Nick Hern Books website.