Venue: The Drama Barn
DramaSoc have an eye for the disturbing. Their productions often foreground violence, twisted forms of sexuality, and the unsettling place where the two meet. Well, Bull is as disquieting as any of their previous pieces, but with a great deal more subtlety. The play sees three corporate co-workers waiting for a meeting with one of their superiors to find out which one of them is about to be let go. This premise, unexciting in itself, frames an hour of excruciating discomfort, as the jittery and waspish Thomas (played exceptionally by Josh Welch) is tortured by his more cool and collected colleagues, Tony (Tom Barry) and Isobel (Venetia Cook). Thomas is mocked and mistreated, tricked and maligned, and is never allowed the last word, over the course of an hour centred on cruelty, both underhanded and overt. In this adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s play, Drama Soc bring to life a corporate culture that reveals the frightening human capacity for sadism.
The play uses humour to keep our sympathies constantly shifting between characters
The key to the nausea that this piece is capable of inducing seems to be a refusal to ever let the audience feel as though they are truly on the side of the victim. Thomas is often funny, capable of a good speech or a clever quip – but often it is his tormentors who are more likeable. One moment, the audience feels, with all of Thomas’s anger, that his colleagues are monstrous. A minute later, the claim that he simply cannot take a joke almost seems true. The play uses humour to keep our sympathies shifting between characters, ensuring that, in addition to all the other things Thomas is denied, he never receives our full support. Creating this effect demands that these three actors be able to shift in tone at the drop of a hat – a challenge to which they all rise. This effect is maximised by the play’s staging that positions the actors in a square in the centre of the drama barn, as the audience watches from all sides. There is no centre stage, no clear focus – Thomas isn’t even allowed to be the leading man in a play about his own destruction.
Although every actor performs well, Josh Welch stands apart from the others. His Thomas moves between being funny and irritating, pathetic and clever, furious and defeatist – each characteristic emphasised at just the right time. Placed in perfect contrast to this is Caitlin Burrows’s unflinchingly pragmatic Carter, the senior member of staff charged with culling one third of this dysfunctional group. Burrows gives us a convincing single-mindedness to contrast with Thomas’s jittery confusion that, once again, casts him in an unfavourable light.
As is sometimes the case with DramaSoc, the comedic moments are done better than the dramatic ones. But this only adds to the air of discomfort that the play seeks to create. The laughs are effective in creating the moral confusion on which the play thrives. DramaSoc are effective in their use of Bartlett’s humour, creating a tense and thoughtful production well worth your time.