Review: Bull

By Alexander Bittar

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you ever forgot that shitty people do actually exist, Bull serves as harrowing reminder.

Three employees. Two will stay. One will go. Set in a corporate sales office, we witness a bullfight personified, as the title would suggest. Thomas, played by Kit Redding, is instantly identified as the runt of the pack and symbolizes the bull. The icy Isobel, played tremendously by Anna Birakos, and the arrogant Tony, played by Tom Cain, are the matadors, teasing him with their snark remarks and fake smiles. They form an evil team whose one mission is to make sure Thomas feels like a grain of dust underneath their feet, playing on all his insecurities: his cheap suit, his sweaty demeanor, his dandruff, and the fact that he is ‘very strangely proportioned….physically’. The acting, direction, and technical design of this production create an atmosphere in the theatre which I have never experienced.

Director and Assistant Director created an environment in which the audience felt inadvertently involved in the action of the play. Tall black drapes hanging from all four sides of the room transformed the Mark Hillery Theatre into an intimate yet imposing black box. Choosing to have this piece performed in the round is perhaps the most effective way to convey this story – it is not like watching a piece of theatre at all, but rather like watching a sporting event. The constant jousting with words makes it feel like at the end of the 55 minutes there will be a winner and there will be a loser. By being part of a standing audience, it made me feel like I was a bystander watching the bullying take place; there were times where I just wanted to stand up in front of Redding and tell them all to stop hurting him. One slight inconvenience was the sharp spotlight which was shining in my eyes throughout the show. Of course, being in the round, it is hard to avoid this issue, however it did create quite a distraction from watching the performance.

Birakos stole the show for me, as she faultlessly embodies the heartless workplace bitch from the moment we heard her obvnoxiously loud shoes clunk the stage floor

The fact that all I wanted to do to these detestable characters is give them a slap in the face is testimony to the absolutely magnificent standard of acting in this production. Birakos, Cain and Bracewell encapsulate characters which I feel nothing but sheer resentment for. Birakos stole the show for me, as she faultlessly embodied the heartless workplace bitch from the moment we heard her obnoxiously loud shoes clunk the stage floor. This role was superbly cast; her sexy and seductive allure is juxtaposed by her ice-cold demeanor. The sharp and cutthroat writing of Mark Bartlett was delivered so impressively by Birakos, and I commend her ability to have really understood the unloving character of Isobel. The combination of her sleek suit jacket and skintight pencil skirt, the disconcerting way she moved around the stage, and her horrifyingly perfect smirk, made the character of Isobel physically comparable to a snake slithering around her prey; director Laird’s efforts here are duly noted. Birakos’ delivery of Isobel’s monologue at the end of the play was simply gut-wrenching and made me question her humanity, as she seemed so unbothered about how her words made Thomas feel. A show-stealing performance.

Cain does a terrific job in finding the balance between decivingly friendly and straight up mean

Cain’s portrayal of the pretentious privileged workplace dickhead, Tony, was worryingly realistic. I sincerely hope he is not a method actor… As Isobel’s co-tormentor to Thomas, Cain does a terrific job in finding the balance between deceivingly friendly and straight-up mean. When conversing with Redding, his ability to switch from Mr Nice Guy to Mr I Want To Crush Your Soul Guy is phenomenal. This choice to have complete shifts in character when bullying Thomas leaves the audience feeling jarred and lulled into a false sense of security with him. We can never tell whether he is actually being genuine, or if he’s just a twat. Ultimately, it is the latter. Sorry guys. My only disappointment is that I felt like I didn’t get to appreciate the full extent of Cain’s performance, as it was often directed in the opposite direction to me. It would have been nice for him to have utilized the space more and been slightly more conscious of the surrounding audience.

It is safe to say, I would never wish anyone to work underneath ’s Carter. He takes the term ‘Boss from Hell’ to the extreme, and offers zero sympathy to any of the characters throughout his regretfully short time onstage. It is purely the fault of the author, but I would’ve loved to see more of him – damn you Mike Bartlett! He commands the stage with his booming voice and degrading attitude to his employees, and he really does hit the nail on the head when it comes to being patronizing and acting better than everybody else. Throughout Bracewell’s scene, I found myself waiting for him to take Thomas’ side, and acknowledge the harassment he has endured. But alas, this is what makes this play so shocking to watch.

Redding’s defeatist physicality coupled with his quivering and shaky voice accentuates his depiction of the fragile and uncertain Thomas

All of these loathsome characters would be nothing if they had no piñata to swing at, and this is where Thomas comes in. Redding channels deep insecurity into his performance, and it feels as if every step he takes is taken with doubt. He is by no means a pushover, but is the weakest of them all. Redding’s defeatist physicality coupled with his quivering and shaky voice accentuates his depiction of the fragile and uncertain Thomas. I would say, however, that at times this nervous energy was harnessed a bit too much, and Redding often lost his naturalistic approach to his character, performing too much of an exaggerated style causing it to be a bit distracting.

That being said, Redding’s capability to maintain his characterization during long periods where he did not speak had a lot of impact on the audience. It was only after Redding’s outburst to his boss Carter about the harassment he has endured that I regained control of my jaw and remembered to close my mouth. It was breathtaking to see Redding channel such passion and sadness into that uncontrollable cathartic release; I wanted to cry, but then realized the show was in the round and the other audience members could see me. It was a pinnacle moment in the show, and one that has very much made its mark in my mind.

This production provoked strong reactions in the audience and provided an insight into the harsh reality that is toxic office politics that often makes you want to punch someone in the face. Despite certain flaws in the blocking of certain scenes, and the unfortunate placement of some of the lights (although I loved the cheeky red glow in the final moments of the show by Tech Director Hadiyat Malik, bravo!), this show leaves you with your eyes wide open and your mouth unable to shut up.

Image: Fourth Wall Theatre

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