The stage of Mike Bartlett’s new play Bull (subtitled “The Bullfight Play”), included in the Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theater, might mislead you into thinking you are at a boxing match rather than a bullfight. But that is just a geometric trompe l’oeil of Soutra Gilmour’s spare, industrial set design. Though the stage is square, like a boxing ring, tricked out with grey office carpet, a water cooler, and clear plastic file holders, the interaction between the players follows the tripartite form of a bullfight.
In the first third, the tercio de varas, Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura), our torera for the evening, circles Thomas the Bull (Sam Troughton), poking and prodding him to uncover his weaknesses. In the tercio de bandarllas, Tony (Adam James) takes the stage with the brio of a mounted picador, charging Thomas and lancing him in sallies until his strength — his faith in his middle class work ethic — has been shredded. Thomas’s head, bloodied but still unbowed, is ready for the attack of the bandarilla, a.k.a. the Big Boss, Mr. Carter (Neil Stuke), who decorates Thomas’s neck with colorful banners of shame, specifically a pink slip. Finally, in the tercio de muerte Isobel, tracing graceful, balletic circles around her dying prey, his head bowed, his eyes wild, saliva, snot and tears dripping from his chin, finds her opening and gives him the final estocada. Thomas the Bull howls out his mortal spirit, falls to the floor, and dies.
The witty brilliance of the play is to fool us into thinking that Thomas is a man, endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights. Thomas insists on being called “Thomas” rather than “Thom” because the former sounds more dignified. His father was a math teacher in primary or secondary school. He works hard, plays by the rules, and is so democratically egalitarian that he can’t admit some people are his natural superiors. Most of us (the storied 99%) feel we should identify with Thomas because he is the promise of a colorblind society, the meritocracy, a proof of right over might. But to Tony and Isobel, Thomas is just a dumb brute, a drudge and a grind, who has a cheek for blows and a head for wrongs.
Certainly, Tony evokes Tony Blair and New Labour, which also evokes the “Essex Lad,” the New Man of Britain’s late 20th century, aspiring middle class. And Bull’s set-up — a meeting where three members of a team have to plead for their jobs in front of the Big Boss — prompts us to root for the little guy facing off against entrenched powers of privilege and class. Even the stage, built to resemble a boxing ring, tricks us into thinking this is a pugilist’s sparring match and not a tauromachia. But something funny happens on the way to Thomas’s confrontation with Goliath. Thomas loses his cool. He makes the critical, fatal mistake of invoking a higher law — justice — in a space that has been designed to embody its own justice, with its own built-in rules of engagement. In a word, he invokes his weakness as a defense.
Just before Isobel is about to deliver the donner la mort, she admits what we unconsciously know but won’t admit: “I don’t feel any [guilt] because I think I know at my heart that if it wasn’t me there would be someone else doing this to you. I think I know in the deepest bit of my heart that actually, you bring all of this on yourself.” Most of us have experienced, even if we have not heard, the maxim: “There is always one person in a group that people secretly trash. If you don’t know who that is, it’s probably you.” The festival atmosphere produced by the staging of the play amplifies the fact that we are watching a blood sport, and that we find secret satisfaction in watching a weak competitor die a deserved death. It’s not pretty, but it is beautiful.