There are two ways we can do this. I can tell you that from the moment Thomas walks on stage, it’s clear that his suit is cheap. Everyone in the play will remark upon it but know that you thought it first, you saw through him instantly. Isobel, on the other hand, is immaculate: hair scraped back into a neat pony-tail, suit tailored but not fussily so, heels like ice-picks, lipstick bright as red blood, the only bold splash of colour on the stage. Tony, too, is tall, trim, well-dressed, well-spoken.
Thomas is no match for either of them. I can tell you that Thomas, Isobel and Tony are part of a sales team facing redundancies, and any minute now Carter will walk in and fire one of them. While they wait, Isobel and Tony bait Thomas.
Callously, carelessly, with the lightest touch of amusement. I can tell you that Thomas tries to play them at their own game but succeeds only in coming across as a vile misogynist. Nothing he does can break the rapport between Isobel and Tony – not because it’s sexual, far from it, but because Isobel and Tony know how to play a man’s game. Punch the air, because this is what decades of feminists fought for: for women to be the equal of men. For women to fight and win, and leave pathetic little losers squirming at their feet. Or was it feminists? No, it wasn’t: it was women like Margaret Thatcher, strong and proud, who refused to be given special treatment because of their gender, and gave women the confidence to succeed in a meritocracy.
I can tell you that Thomas – at least, in Isobel’s representation – believes in the idea of meritocracy. He is – in Carter’s assessment – a “comp boy done good”. He works hard, he tries hard, but it’s never enough. The suit lets him down. His jumped-up attitude lets him down. Class lets him down. He is – as Tony slyly remarks – just like his namesake, Doubting Thomas: everything has to be surface, literal, for him to understand.
So of course when Carter walks in, Thomas makes a hash of everything. Of course he’s given an instant dismissal. Of course he lets himself transmogrify into a speechless animal, wounded and pathetic. You could tell from the way he smoothes his too-long hair back that he has no dignity. Oh, wait, are you going to complain now that I didn’t warn you about spoilers? You are, aren’t you? Jesus, don’t be such a crybaby. As Isobel says to Thomas, have some fucking balls.
That’s one way we can do this.
But there’s another way. I can tell you that from the moment Thomas walks on stage, he looks like Default Man. Remember that brilliant piece by Grayson Perry? Pity for Thomas doesn’t come easy, especially when he starts spraying Isobel with misogynist invective. But it comes. I can tell you that Bull – first performed in 2013 – recognises the bottom-line argument of 21st-century capitalist patriarchy: that humans are part of an evolutionary system and hard-wired to compete. That while all (white, heterosexual) men are equal, some are more equal than others, and even in a meritocracy, privilege will win. Bull knows all of this, and feels at once despair and hope. Despair that this is what people really are like – and even though there are moments when Mike Bartlett pushes his scenario too far for my taste, I know that what he’s done is make explicit what is usually underhand, forced his characters to be honest, even as they lie. Hope that, by showing its audience humanity at its worst, by seeming actually to enjoy the display, it might encourage us to fight for society to be better.
I can tell you that the equality feminism has fought for looks really ugly here. That there is a new feminism with a new fight, which understands that the problem facing society isn’t that women need to be more like alpha men – more women with a place at the boardroom table, more women in positions of power – but that the tables need overturning and the very concept of power needs deconstructing. That even though 21st-century patriarchal capitalism treats all but a tiny fraction of the global population the same way Tony, Isobel and Carter treat Thomas, with disdain, derision, disgust, we don’t have to choose competition. We can choose cooperation instead. I can tell you that much about Bull felt savagely familiar: it reminded me of everything demoralising about working in an office; of the day I knew I wouldn’t get the job I wanted, because I hadn’t come to the interview in a crisp white shirt and heels; of working for one particular Default Man who poisoned my life. I can tell you that Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel is every girl I felt intimidated by at school and every woman who’s made me feel lumpy, graceless and small; that Adam James as Tony is every boy I avoided at university and every self-congratulatory shit buying tiny flats in my corner of London for upwards of half a million pounds; that Neil Stuke as Carter reeks of wine-tastings and golf and weekends in the holiday home. I can tell you that Sam Troughton is so good as Thomas that he’s physically painful to watch: at first because he’s objectionable, but ultimately because he’s vulnerable, stripped of all defences, gored.
The moment Thomas walked on stage, I knew his suit was cheap. By the end, Bartlett made me feel ashamed for even thinking it.
There Will be Blood: Mike Bartlett in conversation with Lee Anderson