Hands up if you were ever bullied at school? Most adults would own up to it, but how many would admit to being bullied at their current job? Previously shown at Etcetera Theatre, writer and director of Bully, Luke Harding grapples with childhood bullying and how it can reemerge and build up into a nasty state of affairs later on in life.
How often do we find ourselves in a situation where our former bully enters our adult workplace, though? I’d say that many would rather flee from a good job opportunity to secure their own safety and sanity than stick around, just in the same way a former bully would try to befriend us on Facebook – we end up pressing the ‘ignore’ button.
Harding plays Jack, the newly-made headmaster of the school where he once was the victim. In this fictional space, Jack lands the job easy. Yet, as soon as he walks into the staff room he sees the boy who used to give him childhood nightmares, Sam, except he’s all grown up. And he’s also teaching. It’s an awkward encounter between two big kids at the school.
Bully is an example that could happen to anyone in any situation, no matter how old or young you are. Over 75 minutes, the production sees the journey of Jack, happily married to Rosie (confident and assuring played by Emily Sesto), exceedingly successful to stressed out, insecure and unwilling to speak openly about his anxieties about the bully to anyone. Not even the person who could stop the situation such as his boss Helen, played by Sue Williamson who gives a meticulous performance as the calm and professional headmistress.
At some points throughout the show, the audience play the role of the schoolchildren. On the night I attended, we, the audience, were part of Sam’s class and Jack was watching him. As we called out guesses of the name of Shakespeare’s first play, Jack interjected and corrected Sam in front of everyone. The audience felt the shudder. In another scene, the audience play the schoolchildren in an assembly hall. This time, Jack seizes the opportunity to get back at Sam, which sees the shift in power go from the bully to the former victim.
Nathan Hughes’s bullish Sam is pumped up and violent. Throughout the show, Hughes’s performance is effectively frightening. His vicious misconduct mirrors the behaviour of someone with a past and, eventually, we see the deeper repercussions of Sam’s own messed-up and abusive upbringing.
Thomas Mitchells as Jack’s light-hearted friend Leon performs an important role, too, as the much-needed joker in this serious production. Small, funny facial expressions and laughs bring as back to earth when it feels like we’ve walked into the pit of hell with Sam’s vicious attacks on Jack.
Harding’s play is a thrilling emotional roller coaster with an honest and deliberate message. It’s applicable to not only bullying but, also, how to find a solution to a terrifying situation about power play. We need more writing like Bully for audiences to remember the lesson and to do their homework: to talk about personal and dangerous problems as soon, and as much, as possible before it’s too late.
Bully was shown at Etcetera Theatre on 18-23 September. For more information about Etcetera Theatre, click here.
Follow Luke Harding on Twitter here.