“These aren’t the results we were expecting”
Of all the new plays that I saw last year, it would have taken me a long time to arrive at Earthquakes in London as being the one which would receive a national tour. Not because it wasn’t good, in fact I really enjoyed Mike Bartlett’s slightly flawed epic ambition, but because the National Theatre production was intrinsically linked to the way in which Headlong utterly transformed the Cottesloe auditorium with Miriam Beuther’s design with its serpentine catwalk, trapdoors, bar stools and cutaway stages. But never ones to shirk a challenge, Goold and Headlong, along with touring director Caroline Steinbeis, have remounted the show into a tour-able format which I caught at Richmond Theatre.
My original review can be read here and it was actually quite nice to be able to revisit the show a year later in the context of his other 2010 work Love Love Love and especially in a week when I had also caught Bartlett’s latest epic work 13. Knowing what to expect makes a world of difference: I didn’t feel the length of the show – 2 hours 55 minutes here – whereas people new to it all commented on it; one was able to take in more of the detailed work of the company alongside the razzmatazz which was sometimes a little distracting; and even the final sequence, something that I wasn’t hugely keen on last time, made more sense this time round and felt like the necessary balancing of tone to keep the play from being too despondent. The central conceit of the intertwining stories of the three sisters remained strong and the jumps around time were also effective, possibly more so for knowing exactly what was going on in them from the off! The scale of the storytelling is occasionally unwieldy in reaching to be epic , but I don’t think any other writer in the UK is stretching themselves this much and whilst it may not all come off, I thoroughly admire the scope of his ambition.
The staging issues have been addressed by constructing a multi-level revolve to ostensibly allow the multiple short scenes to play out with the necessary speed and energy: this is probably the best (and only?) way this could be achieved although the revolving could have done with being executed with a greater smoothness and speed. And there’s no escaping the fact that performing in a proscenium theatre adds a level of physical distance from the performance which sadly translates into a bit of an emotional disconnect, the raucous energy of the original was something I did miss. In the company of 16, Tracy-Ann Oberman stood out with her excellent performance as oldest sister and coolly pragmatic Sarah, an utterly convincing naturalism to her portrayal which hasn’t necessarily been showcased in her TV work and I thought Sean Gleeson as her husband and John Hollingworth’s Steve also did fine work as did Lucy Phelps, making her debut as gobby youngest sister Jasmine. Joseph Thompson and Paul Shelley portrayed the younger and older version of patriarch Robert well – Shelley gets the best piece of writing, playing off his domestic situation with dour Scottish housekeeper (Maggie McCourt here) to provide a highly illuminating and relatable explanation of the effects of overpopulation.
There was a Q and A with Rupert Goold at the end of the show, which was pleasingly free of ridiculous questions (I manage to refrain from asking him what conditioner he uses) that revealed a few tidbits of interesting information. Although already epic in scale, Earthquakes… was originally conceived as a two-part play, and the second part – focusing on Solomon’s journey – might yet still be written; a new Bartlett play will go to the National next year focusing on Queen Elizabeth’s death and Headlong fancy taking Decade out on tour if they can. My favourite snippet though was the revelation that Gary Barlow had declined permission for a Take That song to be used as the dad-rock number – Barlow does strike me as someone who would be that humourless – but I think that Coldplay fit so perfectly into that mould that it was probably for the best. We were also surprised to hear that Bartlett sat in on most of the rehearsals, I don’t doubt that Goold did exactly what he wanted to with the play but I can’t help but wonder what a Bartlett-free rehearsal zone might have felt more at liberty to do with the text.
So kudos to Headlong for taking the chance on touring such an ambitious piece of new writing and giving more people the chance to see it (again in some cases) though I wonder if they always picked the right venues to tour to and indeed the right towns, I don’t know the logistics of setting up a tour but it was sad to see the furthest north it managed to get was Malvern and Cambridge. It’s not a perfect piece of theatre – one gets the sense that Bartlett is still negotiating the leap from his intimate early works to the large-scale commissions he is now receiving – but his public learning curve is highly entertaining and much like people’s response to the issue of climate change itself, it is complex, multi-layered and lacking any easy sense of resolution.