Thursday, 17 May 2018

Bully Virus - Theatre Review

What: Bully Virus
When: 16 - 27 May 2018
Where: La Mama Theatre
Written and directed by: Kate Herbert
Composition by: Anna Durham
Performed by: Jenny Lovell, Carole Patullo, and Geoff Wallis
Stage Management by: Emmie Turner

Jenny Lovell and Carole Patullo - photo by Joe Calleri
Bully Virus is the new play currently being performed at La Mama Theatre and I urge everyone to go and see it. Written and directed by renowned theatre director, writer and critic Kate Herbert Bully Virus looks at the endemic problem of workplace bullying.

Using verbatim techniques, Herbert brings us 5 harrowing stories of workplace bullying. Not surprisingly, there is an over representation of the health industry. More surprisingly perhaps, given everything which has been happening in the Melbourne theatre industry over recent years, there is no representation from that quarter. It is irrelevant though. The collection - along with an array of vox pops - produce a terrifying catalogue of workplace behaviours which are evidently designed to damage the people who have been targeted.

Whilst Herbert keeps the general tone light throughout with little comic windows into the HR and management perspective, the horror lies in us knowing these are real stories. These things, this damage, happened to real people. This truth is constantly reinforced as the acting trio read the victims stories from files and folios despite them being in the first person.

The play begins with Lovell, Patullo, and Wallis entering with great verve and energy and revving up the audience with rousing statistics which point out Australia is the world leader in workplace bullying (aussie, aussie, aussie, oi, oi, oi) and that 1 in every 2 Australians has been a victim of work place bullying making us world leaders (aussie, aussie, aussie, oi, oi, oi). We Australians do like to achieve on the world stage! Dressed in grey suits they go on to be a comedy trio of HR executives scoffing at wingers and whiners. There are some great moments as they impersonate  a Marx Brothers style comedy schtick and the always amusing elevator chat scene.

The times between though, are dark and deadly. Five victims tell their tale with the story of man bun wearing, beard dragging hipster office worker (Wallis) holding the narrative throughout most of the play, plastering the other four stories into a pastiche of pain and confusion.

An intriguing aspect to Herbert's choices is most of the stories do not contain the overt physical or verbal violence we probably tend to associate with bullying. Herbert illuminates the subtle bullying. She shows us how people are 'managed out' of their jobs. She demonstrates how Human Resources are not our friend. She reminds us they are paid by the company so why would they ever be on the side of the victim? As someone who has had the misfortune to experience both the overt and subtle styles of bullying too many times now I can tell you that every word of Bully Virus is true. You may laugh. You may find it funny. If you have been a victim though, this is a trigger warning. It will be hard to watch if you bare those scars yourself.

All three actors are great although I would have liked Lovell and Patullo to create more physical diversity between their victims. The only real way to keep track was by looking at the big labels on the files as they pulled them out and read from them. I know they are capable of more because their work when they were free of the scripts was great.

Herbert uses the small space at La Mama Theatre extremely cleverly and it seems a whole lot bigger than it is - an effect supported by spot lights and floods expanding and contracting the space. Kept in a clean open white, the simple lighting was extremely effective and I applaud the restraint used.

Durham's sound design is absolutely magnificent and pulls a good play into the realms of a great play. Again, there is restraint, but every sound and every moment of non-sound is so carefully constructed and so perfectly etched it creates the architecture of the world Herbert has crafted.

Bully Virus is only on for a short time but this is important stuff and if you can you really must go and see it. Bullying will only stop once we learn to recognise it and tell the people around us it will not be tolerated. When you are a victim it is hard to speak up for yourself and it only makes things worse but if you are a witness it is your duty to speak up for that person or those people! Bullying doesn't just harm and change the target, it harms and changes the entire community because of how that person then interacts with the world once they are damaged.

4 Stars

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