“13” by Mike Bartlett

at the Olivier Theatre, Thursday 29th December 2011

“The more you know, the harder you will find it to make up your mind” goes Tim Minchin’s “anthem to ambivalence” The Fence. In an increasingly divided world, which sees everything as black or white, the grey area in between is sometimes the most interesting and the most fulfilling. Mike Bartlett’s extraordinary and multitudinous new play 13 fights this case whilst at the same time rallying behind the idea of belief, imploring us to fight for a cause and resist the forces of blandness society struggles so hard to impose upon us. Thea Sharrock’s production is a smorgasbord of spectacle and yet a marvel of simplicity.

We are in central London, among many intertwining storylines and characters. The two central voices come from a female Conservative Prime Minister (Geraldine James) and a messiah-type figure in John (Trystan Gravelle), the former of whom defends her ‘considered’ approach to politics while the other rises up through a mini-internet revolution to become the voice of the people, fighting for freedom of speech and idealism. Around this central story there are dozens of other tales of love, loss, parenthood and faith which all share the theme of belief and ignorance.

It is not hard to see that this is the same mind that came up with Earthquakes in London, but there have been some improvements made. Where Earthquakes felt a little too messy, even though the stories tried hard to be entwined, 13 goes all out on the haphazardness, not holding back anything and revelling in a confusion of voices. There are no ‘unreal’ aspects to this play either as there were in the former; this is merely a ‘hyper-real’ representation of our own reality, drawing out the most deplorable and exciting aspects of the new way of the world. Yes, it is sometimes a little unbelievable, but is entirely this idealism which Bartlett is trying to capture; in order to achieve a better future, we must make the impossible possible.

Although Bartlett seems to lay out the cause for idealism and belief, arguing this is better than thinking nothing at all, the final thirty minutes turn this on its head, showing that no one is entirely morally clean and we are all hypocrites – we must therefore be cautious when creating role models, rather embracing the faults of a whole group and using them to our advantage. Everyone is corrupt to an extent – governments, Julian Assange, Ghandi, and not one of us nor any political system is perfect.

Thea Sharrock’s staging is fast-paced and dynamic, mirroring Bartlett’s breakneck play. She draws out the human aspects of these stories whilst making clear political and cultural comments. Tom Scutt’s huge cuboid set becomes a space for socialising, fighting and playing, and gives hints towards those ‘black boxes’ we hear about, holding information about all of us. Adrian Johnston and Mark Henderson’s music and lighting add to the epic qualities of the production and are just as confused and layered as the play itself.

Some strong performances bring the text to life, and each remains solidly human; Adam James is well placed in his comfort zone as a misogynistic solicitor, while Kirsty Bushell and Davood Ghadami display touching qualities as an archetypal couple. Danny Webb is both disturbing and fascinating as the atheist confidante to Geraldine James’ privately passionate but publicly cold Prime Minister. Gravelle’s performance as John, however, steals the show, remaining ever elusive due to his calmness but remaining ingenious, brave and  inspiring. He is the leader we all long for.

To those who criticise Bartlett’s play for being too messy, I say this: you’re going to have to learn to live with it. As our world becomes ever more confusing and the number of heard voices increases, this style of multi-layered, collaborative and somewhat confused play is only going to become more popular. The well-made and carefully crafted play doesn’t mirror our difficult and postmodern world, and as we have to deal with excess in everyday life, theatre must respond to it. 13 is ingenious in its variety, tackling huge, almost incomprehensible questions, but in doing so it asks each and every one of us to interrogate our own beliefs and values and opens up a discourse which must and will take place.

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