Posts Tagged ‘13’

 

25/10/11

To me, Mike Bartlett is one of the most interesting playwrights working today. Okay, so he misses the mark frequently, and his style is one that many find irritating – but he’s creating new and innovative work in a period when people are increasingly relying on ‘safe’ old staples.

I was first introduced to his work with Earthquakes in London. It was hectic, anarchic, chilling at times, and descended into a completely ridiculous ending that had many leaving grumbling about a ‘flash in the pan’. I liked Earthquakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was flawed, but it showed promise from a young playwright trying to shine a light on modern Britain. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as Bartlett has now graduated to the Olivier theatre, and now holds the dubious honour of being the youngest playwright in ten years to have managed this.

13 takes on a similar structure to Earthquakes, following different characters as they attempt to grapple with living in modern Britain. This is a society on the brink of a big change – though what that change is lies in the hands of the characters Bartlett portrays. The first half is almost nightmarish in quality, opening with all the characters sharing a single and terrifying dream. Militant protesters, academics, politicians and greasy solicitors are all drawn to a mysterious man named John, who speaks simple sense – offering the chance to reject materialism and greed.  The second half is a dramatic shift as the prime minister addresses John and his followers, and their opposition to an American invasion of Iran.

To be quite honest, the storyline to this is incidental. Bartlett uses the play instead to address modern concerns. This London is incredibly realistic, and far too close for comfort. Public disorder and riots, social media sites, occupying protesters – all are addressed here as Bartlett tries to stress the importance of belief, not necessarily in a God but in something, anything. He argues that this is the reason we dream of a society on the brink of collapse, because we no longer stand united behind one common goal.

This is what Bartlett does best: mixing epic theatre with political insight. There is a whiff of Tony Kushner in his ability to boil down larger issues into his characters personal relationships, and his examination of modern society is unparalleled. I don’t think I was the only one who was decidedly unnerved by his examination of the uncertainly we all face, and the comparison between young people hungering for change and the entrenched elder statesmen of politics clinging to the status quo. There was something incredibly chilling about Bartlett’s world view and the fact that, when faced with such monumental change in the world, none of us really know where all this is going.

The opening to the play is nothing short of spectacular. Laurie Anderson’s ‘Someone Elses Dream’ whispers in your ear as a gigantic cube emerges from the darkness like a monolith. (I had never heard the song before, and assumed it had been written for this play. It is a terrifying and beautiful piece of music, and I’d urge you to seek it out.) The short scenes that follow quickly introduce all the key players and sets the ambitious and hectic pace that continues throughout the first half.

The set is really beautiful in it’s seeming simplicity, using the revolve perfectly and gently moving from one scene to another in a way that seemed totally natural. The cube is used in a variety of different settings, becoming a lawyers office, and opening up to reveal a dark steel structure inside. Additional set pieces are also used in an efficient and clever way – most notably the breakfast bar, which at times has three different scenes taking place on it simultaneously.

There were also some brilliant performances on offer from a company that’s difficult to fault. The standouts were Trystan Gravelle as the prophetic John, whose gentle performances made his speeches totally believable and compelling, and Adam James as the bitter and angry lawyer. Danny Webb also gives a sterling supporting performance as a Richard Dawkins type character, providing an atheist voice to counter a preaching of John. But this performance belongs to Geraldine James, who stole it for me as the compassionate Tory Prime Minister that lost her way.

This show has a lot going for it, and at the end of the first half, if I gave star ratings it would be a solid five, I even ran down to the NT bookshop to buy the play as I was so impressed with what I had seen, but unfortunately, I did not feel the same way by the end of the show. While the first half burst from the stage with energy and passion, the second half descended into a thirty-minute conversation around a table between only three people.

 It was a very good conversation. The writing was dynamic, the exchanges interesting and relevant as John, the Prime Minister and the Atheist grappled with an imminent war – but it bore absolutely no relation to the play I was watching in the first half. To me it seemed as though Bartlett had grown bored of the epic and decided to just write a domestic drama instead – highlighting all his key points in one handy conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could take Bartlett by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. He did this in Love Love Love, and he did it in Earthquakes. He creates a bit of theatrical magic, and then ruins it thirty minutes before the end. It is the football equivalent of scoring an own goal in extra time. There is something enigmatic and incredibly interesting about this play. It brings up the confusion and conflict we all experience in our lives, while shining a light on bigger political issues. I should have come out raving about this show, instead I left disappointed and frustrated, desperately wishing that Bartlett would learn how to finish what he started.

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