05/06/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Bully for Bartlett: Mike Bartlett's Bull


Be warned: I'm about to tell you a cock and bull story. Well, at least the story is about two Mike Bartlett plays called Cock and Bull, the latter of which is currently playing at 59E59 Theater, produced with Sheffield Theatres as part of their Brits Off Broadway series. Bull is subtitled "The Bullfight Play," in the same way Cock was subtitled "The Cockfight Play," which should give you a better idea of Bartlett's clever device with the eye-catching hook of these titles. Yet as audience members sit and stand around the bullring in the center of 59E59's Theater B, the bulls that they see in the ring wear suits and play mind-games.

Bull is billed as the companion to last year's Cock, a play that I thoroughly enjoyed. The common thread for these two pieces is their interest in the primal, animalistic, and downright ugly ways humans behave when put in extremely competitive situations. In Cock a woman and man compete for the same man, while in Bull two men and a woman compete to keep their jobs.

Director Clare Lizzimore was clearly inspired by the staging of Cock, which was a situation of theatre in the round (where the audience surrounds the action on all sides) that seemed to evoke the feeling of watching a cockfight. Here Soutra Gilmour's set was a clear evocation of a bullfighting ring. Audience members are encouraged to come in close and see the action, though as the actors energetically utilize the space, it tends to be a good idea to be wary about exactly how close one gets.

Lizzimore gets a lot out of her four actors. Her excellent blocking combines with the plot of Bull itself to especially showcase the sympathetic underdog Thomas, played by Sam Troughton. Troughton gives an excellent performance, but part of this has to do with the fact that he's really the only sympathetic character in this play. The other three people who come into the space are all ruthless, apathetic, and manipulative.

Thomas's coworkers, Isobel and Tony, played by Eleanor Matsuura and Adam James respectively, are simply bullies. Bartlett puts us metaphorically and, in the case of certain audience members, literally in Thomas's corner against these two cruel individuals. We don't learn much about Isobel and Tony other than the fact that they want to get rid of Thomas by embarrassing him in front of their boss, Nell Stuke's Carter.

Bull walks a fine line in its 55 minutes of playing time between a human allegorical version of a bullfight and an extreme, but ultimately realistic portrayal of the horrific kind of behavior business allows for. The result of this tension in the performance I witnessed is that the audience does not know whether they ought to laugh at the ridiculous juxtaposition or wince at the implications about the way adults bully each other.

I will say that where Cock was brilliant in the way it handled all of the subtleties of its conflict, resulting in an interesting overall arc, Bull relentlessly escalates until its abrupt ending. Though I was totally engaged with the action the entire time, I realized that there are very few ways to take this play. It is not as complex as its companion, but it serves a different purpose. It you're looking for an uncomfortable, but interesting short night of theatre, then go and check out Mike Bartlett's Bull.