“It’s a difficult thing this, it’s always difficult when faced with the need to downsize, to conduct a cull. To save the species, by which I mean the rest of us…”
This vicious comedy is an allegorical deathmatch between business colleagues, full of bizarre power plays and one-upmanship; one of three employees is allegedy going to be fired.
Upon entering The Drama Barn, instantly the elaborate metaphor of a bullfight is firmly established. The production, set in-the-round, echoes an arena bathed in the distinctive red so commonly associated with the infamous sport. Accompanying this aesthetic is a synthetic bass sound providing an artificial noise of a crowded ring. This foreshadowing of the later climax is quickly halted in favour of the stark, white, clinical lighting that holds steady for most of the performance, heightening the oppressive, cloying environment.
In this provocative allegory, we are swiftly introduced to the ‘bull’, known as Thomas (Josh Welch). The juxtaposition between him and his colleagues, Tony (Thomas Barry) and Isobel (Venetia Cook) are brilliantly introduced and disgustingly nurtured. Their relationship can be first perceived as a tennis match: a fair battle with each participant taking their shot. However, Barry and Cook are both palpably grounded and assured, the antithesis of Welch’s airy, helpless persona and it is clear to see that it is not a fair fight, but instead, the cruel bear baiting of a helpless animal. This is only exacerbated with the introduction of their boss, Carter (Caitlin Burrows). Upon her entrance to the ring she could mistakenly be interpreted as the bull’s saviour, however, with help from Barry and Cook, instead she waves the red cape even more ferociously, thus nullifying and pushing the creature to breaking point.
The production, set in-the-round, echoes an arena bathed in the distinctive red so commonly associated with the infamous sport.
Welch’s character is the sole holder of any narrative journey or character arc in the play. Thus, he was faced with the task of delicately developing Thomas, the bull, which he did with patience and maturity. By doing so he allowed the tangible crescendo of Thomas to come to the fore and carried with him the audience’s ever-growing pity and sympathy.
One of the biggest strengths of this production was the co-ordination of the actors in what can prove to be a difficult space. Acting in-the-round can be a challenging task, especially when movement is so crucial, with the depiction of power being integral to the success of the piece. However, the stage was balanced in an expert fashion with dynamic and meaningful shapes speaking silent volumes.
Although the acting must be commended, the characters could have perhaps been developed even more. The play had such potential and if pushed further, deeper and darker instances of humour and nuances of character could have been uncovered. However, taking into consideration that the play was assembled in a mere couple of weeks, it was nevertheless a laudable result.
The muted colour palette consisting of the greys, blacks and blues of business attire adorning every character remains as a stark reminder of the everyday nature this seemingly unlikely and unfortunate situation holds. Surrounded by an abstract, minimalistic set, the stakes and emotions are all very real; a point raised by Bartlett himself within the play. “They do this on The Apprentice,” says Tony at one point, directly emphasising the discernible parallels to our world. The older one gets, the more sophisticated bullying techniques become and perhaps the word to attribute to this idea and the nature of the play is deniability. When is it actually bullying? Throughout the play, all actions by parties could be shirked or denied, leaving the audience questioning where exactly this line lies.
The infamous quote from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan regarding the state of nature cannot be a more perfect way to summarise the production as a whole: “nasty, brutish and short.”
‘Bull’ is on at The Drama Barn until Sunday 24th of April, and it is a perfect way to spend an hour’s break from revision. Tickets can be purchased on the YUSU website or at the door.
All photographs courtesy of Jennie Hale.