“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling apart…in this country…across the world…”
Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings… And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.
What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs.
Having established this sense of a society on the precipice of significant change, socially and economically, with its whirl of short scenes, matters coalesce around the two centre figures of Ruth and John, the Prime Minister and the prophet. She is faced with the increasingly likely prospect of war with Iran and having to carry a highly disillusioned electorate with her; he is an elusive figure whose proposals for a different kind of politics, a sea-change in the way things are done gains huge currency especially through social media channels, and the two are flung together – they also share a dark connection from the past – in the penultimate act which effectively pulls together the wider arguments of the play. The first half has a sprawlingly epic feel that is highly ambitious, occasionally losing focus as it remains somewhat enigmatic but things do become clearer and by ultimately tightening in the lens on this meeting that dominates the second half, of two opposing minds, two differing ideologies, connections between the strands become evident, demonstrating the complexity of Bartlett’s writing.
He really does excel at combining the political and the personal, the epic and the intimate, drawing these unexpected links between plots and highlighting the heavy weight of responsibility that we all carry when it comes to making decisions, no matter how important they may seem or not – the decision to send people to their death is one which is cleverly echoed at both micro- and macro- levels. And for me, he really captures the uncertainty that permeates the world view at the minute, the sense that we are in the grip of huge change and no-one really knows how it will play out or indeed what the best forward really is. So it feels quite apposite that it is hard to define in any succinct manner what the play is about or the fact that it doesn’t attempt to offer any easy answers.
I adored the opening sequence with Adrian Johnston’s darkly atmospheric music swelling as a giant cube revolves on the stage and faces begin to emerge in the darkness. That then leads into a breathless succession of short vignettes, taking in introductions to all our major characters – the Twelve (I wasn’t 100% sure what significance the Twelve had…) – and strong hints of the thematic issues on the agenda. The stage revolves throughout and the whole is directed seamlessly by Thea Sharrock. As the hectic pace recedes, there’s no loss in fluidity though with scenes overlapping, often using the same location – the breakfast bar is used particularly well in this instance – and the opportunities offered by the Olivier’s drum are well exploited too, to dramatic effect. It’s a staging that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it is executed here with consummate professionalism.
And as befits a play on this stage, there’s an exceptionally talented company that has been assembled, mixing familiar NT names with new faces. Geraldine James as a compassionate Conservative Prime Minister and Trystan Gravelle as the prophet-like John lead the cast, with sterling support from Danny Webb as an irascible atheist, Kirsty Bushell and Davood Ghadami’s liberal couple, Genevieve O’Reilly as an inscrutable US diplomat’s wife and Adam James’ obdurate lawyer. But a younger generation of talent is also featured here, with Shane Zaza, Lara Rossi and Katie Brayben all impressing too.
So whilst there are aspects of this production that some will find most annoying and those seeking resolution of the issues raised therein will only be frustrated, I actually found 13 to be enigmatically captivating and for once, a play I could actually use the term state-of-the-nation for and mean it (but I hate that phrase so I won’t!) in the way it portrays the ball of confusion we find ourselves in now. Plus you also get the most amusing rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl In The World’ you’ll hear this year!