Tony (left) talking down to Thomas (right) making him feel worthless. The play BULL shows the ‘excruciating embarrassment’ of workplace bullying.
There is a fine line between office politics, and playground bullying.
In the latest play by Mike Bartlett, BULL the premise is simple – three people, two jobs. The awkward Thomas joins high-powered Isobel, and smooth-talking Tony, as they wait for their boss to arrive in a small office somewhere in England.
As with any good episode of The Apprentice, this is a time for mind games. Both Tony and Isobel take turns poking fun at the ‘short, plump and unattractive Thomas’ forcing him to act impulsively with outbursts of rage – similar to George Costanza in Seinfeld.
Tony and Isobel undermine Thomas’ confidence by playing on his insecurities – of which there are many. But, are they really, or is he just a bit paranoid?
As the title suggests, this is a fight in which the bull will go down, but it’s more than that. The word “bull” focuses on the bull-like nature and high testosterone levels that can be attributed to any of the three main characters. Isobel is manipulative, psychopathic and proves she’s as much a killer as Tony or Carter (the boss). Tony is in peak physical condition, and Thomas is a rugged, fiery little man who reacts defensively towards the bullying he is subjected to throughout the play.
And as all the bull excrement flies around, you can’t help but feel a deeply felt criticism of the whole capitalist work ethic, which degrades the workers, even when they are executives, turning humans into animals.
In our desperation to hang onto our jobs, we all might turn into raging bulls.
The main theme is bullying, but as Tony and Isobel gang up on Thomas, their initially playful attitude quickly escalates into sadism. Hatred comes on silver tongues and cruelty arrives with a tight smile.
At times it is hard to sit still in your seat. Especially when excruciating embarrassment hangs in the air, and one cannot help but feel sorry for Thomas, or relate.
Authority is abused, and facts twisted as Tony and Isobel convince their boss of their excellence. The bullies flaunt their balls; the victim ends up emasculated. And, being Britain, there is also a class aspect to this struggle: the bullies were privately educated; Thomas was a comprehensive-school boy – representing the everyday hard-working middle class businessman.
The audience reaction is filled with mixed emotion. The play can make you feel sympathetic for Thomas, or laugh at the dark reality of office politics – either way, there is a genuine reaction, and it is hard to look away.
The story is the sad reality that ‘nice guys really do finish last’, and the business world is powerful, ruthless and cruel – like a raging BULL.