Reviewed – 18th September 2018
“Bully is able to create a genuine sense of threat to life from what initially might be dismissed as workplace silliness “
Luke Harding doesn’t attempt to deceive his audience when presenting the characters of his first play, Bully. It’s simple from the outset: Sam is the bully, Jack the victim. Reconvening as fellow teachers at the place of the original torment, Manor School, Harding’s play explores how bullying doesn’t just plague the younger years of the weak and vulnerable, but can lay dormant before resurfacing and intensifying in far more violent episodes later on. Owing in part to Harding’s writing, as well as to Nathan Hughes’ muscular portrayal of the brutal Sam, Bully is able to create a genuine sense of threat to life from what initially might be dismissed as workplace silliness — all in under 75 minutes. The play’s winding path leaves the audience with much to consider, but come the hard-hitting closing scene, the complexity of the struggle facing teachers and social workers to not only identify, but to somehow resolve bullying in the home, school, or workplace, is violently laid to bare. The conclusion is as unsettling as the process: in scenarios like these, there are rarely any winners.
The play takes place mostly in closed educational spaces and the home: the office of oblivious headmistress Helen (Sue Williamson), the staffroom, and Jack’s flat with his wife Rosie (Emily Sesto). The staging is sparse and unsung in these scenes, mostly providing fodder for Sam’s rages, the chance for Jack to take a stiff drink, and cluttered desks to show how overworked secondary school teachers really are. When the focus does shift to the classroom or assembly hall, the play ingeniously positions the audience as the schoolchildren — we witness an important power play while participating in an English lesson from Sam, while the play’s climax casts us as recipients of Jack’s last act of retaliation: an assembly on bullying itself.
Colleague and friend Leon (Thomas Mitchells) gives the play its lighter touches through delicate expression and body language, but even he cannot remain detached from Harding’s messy moral web — at its strongest when context fleshes out the fiery exchanges. Leon’s advice to Jack is eventually called into question by the ending — we are left wondering: should you bully a bully? Such questions come to dominate the later stages of the play — Harding’s decision to begin with a simple premise means that the narrative’s complexity comes later, surrounding rehabilitation and vengeance. But while Jack is caught in a seemingly impossible scenario as Sam’s own trauma is simultaneously unveiled, some of the work’s best lines move slightly further from the story, allusively confronting social issues such as state underfunding, opportunity, and privilege — all of which would benefit from further development. Nonetheless, Hughes’ delivery here is brilliant. When he screams ‘These kids are f***ed!’ in response to Jack’s optimism about social mobility and innovative learning, we realise that Harding is tackling so much more than isolated harassment. All behaviour is political, and allowing the play this space is the key to unlocking the expansive power of Harding’s confrontational theatrical style.
Reviewed by Ravi Ghosh
Photography by Thomas Mitchells
Etcetera Theatre until 23rd September