Tag Archives: Mike Bartlett

“Medea” by Euripides (adapted by Mike Bartlett)

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 13th November 2012

This piece covers only my initial thoughts on the production. I’m writing a 3000-word essay for December on how Bartlett’s version reacts to the original and Greek tragedy in general, and that’ll go into more detail. I’ll see if I can make it available after writing it.

One of the main criticisms levelled at placing classic texts in modern settings is that the language seems anachronistic and allusions to weapons (daggers, swords etc) end up making little sense when the protagonists are wielding iPhones and laptops. In Headlong’s new production of Medea, however, this problem is solved by adapter/director Mike Bartlett, who makes Euripides’ original completely his own, introducing themes of depression, parenthood and twenty-first century gender politics. Under his direction, the play blends the best parts of both contemporary theatre and Greek tragedy, and though the final few moments are a little disappointing, there are some powerful moments throughout which bring to light a number of issues.

Strikingly, though Bartlett has basically rewritten the play himself, utilising his trademark quick-fire dialogue and hyper-aware modernist discussions, he remains alarmingly faithful to the structure and narrative thrust of Euripides’ original. Looking through an old translation, the scenes follow the same events and the tone of each is constant. Even more impressive, though (on the whole) the long speeches of the Greek version have been done away with, in certain scenes (specifically the first Jason/Medea scene) the power balance mirrors who’s talking in Euripides’ text. The effect, therefore, is that the grand Greek tragedy is always heard whispering beneath the surface.

Bartlett doesn’t shy away from asking similar questions to Euripides. The play is still about alienation, motherhood and fate, and each step of the way every one of these themes is questioned, interrogated and analysed with the same rigourousness of Euripides. In a post-Freudian era, however, the text shows itself to be even richer, as Bartlett attempts to understand some of the psychologies of these characters. They are still, broadly, the archetypes of the original, but he also slides in some thoughts about the causes and effects of depression and how modern ‘conveniences’ can have a negative impact on our social life.

The design, by Ruari Murchison, does something which is not possible in Medea’s original context. In it, we see a nondescript suburban house, complete with Ikea furniture and primary colours, and which can be opened and closed as necessary like a giant doll’s house. Some events happen within it and others outside, watched by the local builder. Whereas Euripides’ play was about the public consequences of private events, then, we see these more secretive moments occur and recognise the shift between Medea’s public and private personas.

There’s also some impressive work by lighting designer Johanna Town, who, alarmingly, actually brightens the stage as the action progresses; in one of the final scenes, the entire house is lit in bright white light, as clarity exists for the first time within Medea’s mind. Tom Mills’ composition is also extraordinary, at times taking filmic, thriller-type turns and at others using simple melodic motifs to highlight shifts in focus or finalised decisions.

The best thing about this production, however, is the performance given by Rachel Stirling in the title role, who manages to capture both the hugely tragic potential of this character and Bartlett’s depiction of twenty-first century womanhood. She is just as witty and fiery as Euripides’ original, and no attempt is made to shy away from her witch-like qualities. The whole show rests on this performance, and is successful because of it. Next to Stirling’s commanding portrayal, the rest of the cast look even more like the broad archetypes they are, with Sarah, Pam and the Workman (Lu Corfield, Amelia Lowdell & Paul Brendan) acting as a cross between the nurse, tutor and choric characters. Adam Levy’s Jason carefully walks the line between normal, charming father and complete and utter wanker. His scenes with Stirling are the best in the piece.

More than all this, however, Bartlett’s production demonstrates that Greek tragedy is possible in 2012, and that though we’ve moved to a more ‘enlightened’, rational sensibility, these events and stories are still just as moving as they ever were. The ‘perpetrators’ of these events may longer be the gods, but Headlong contest that similar fatalistic forces – like the state and society in general – are to blame for decisions such as the one to kill one’s own son (more on this later in follow-up essay).

This debate comes to head in the final moments when (*Spoiler alert*) Medea stands on the roof of her burning house (a nice nod to the vertical axis employed in Greek amphitheatres), shouting to God and asking him show himself, her dead and bloodied son lying next to her. In print, this scene is chilling, but something about the projected flames and over-elaborate set-change means these five minutes run the risk of seeming farcical. I wonder whether a similar effect could be achieved with less fuss; Bartlett’s words do the work for him, and by adding this parerphernalia his compelling argument, which has been so powerful in the previous ninety minutes, is lost.


“Boys” by Ella Hickson

at the Soho Theatre, Monday 4th June 2012

Since the British public were treated to a Conservative government, there seems to me to have been a drive towards plays which contemplate big issues surrounding modern life; Mike Bartlett is at the forefront of this wave of Big Issue plays (I’ll come up with a better name in time), with the likes of Laura Wade and Headlong following suit with Posh and Decade respectively. For my money, I’d be willing to bet that, like it or not, this style of theatre will become more and more popular in the coming years. Ella Hickson’s Boys is a step in this direction, cementing a style of theatre which embraces theatricality as a way of tackling sprawling topics.

Hickson’s play is set in an Edinburgh flat, in which Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam live (the first two are students, the latter living there as the rent is cheaper). It is the end of exams and the quartet party regularly, boozing and snorting the nights away. The bin bags have been piling up for weeks as the council refuses to remove them; Benny thinks this an outrage whilst Mack argues they are not “entitled” to free rubbish collection and fails to see why he should do anything about it. Hickson here shows a disenfranchised and hopeless youth, for while many are out protesting, the vast majority are sat at home wasting time. References to Disney throughout signify a desire to hold on to innocence and a time when fairy-tale endings were possible. It’s a clever trick; you’d be surprised by the number of times Disney is discussed and played by students in 2012.

The slowly accumulating bin bags are symptomatic of an underlying strain, for they bring out both protesters and police who proceed to face-off whilst the boys and their girlfriends party in the flat (Benny recounts the story to us from the window). After the big bags are heaved into the flat at the demands of the police, they cannot stay dormant for long, and in a rather beautiful moment the bags and their contents are thrown around the stage in a sort of binman’s ballet. This is where Hickson’s awareness of theatricality truly shows itself, and the detritus is left strewn around the flat for a long time afterwards.

The storyline surrounding Benny and his recent past (*highlight for spoiler* his brother recently hung himself) feels somewhat unnecessary to the narrative, though it’s clear he represents the death of one final hope for this generation, who have now been made devoid of ambition and power since their collective voice is listened to less and less. Those who want to fight are laughed at and ridiculed.

Robert Icke’s production, though a little slow, captures these images of loss and protest with some simple theatrical flair on an otherwise naturalistic set (Chloe Lamford). Samuel Edward Cook, Lorn Macdonald and Tom Mothersdale as Mack, Cam and Timp are frustratingly carefree and fail to notice the shift happening right outside their window. Equally, Laura and Sophie, played by Alison O’Donnell and Eve Ponsonby are not aware that the lives they are living have become pointless. It is only Benny who seems to care about the world around him, and Danny Kirrane’s endearing and open performance commands our sympathy.

Boys is not without its faults; the second act could do with some cuts and there are at times too many questions raised (interestingly, these are the same accusations which have been levelled at Bartlett in the past). But it manages to capture a mood among young people which straddles the line between wanting to do something but feeling powerless. Hickson, I suspect, will write better plays on similar subjects, but here we are witnessing the germination of a new era of playwriting in theatre. I don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming.

Pinterest board here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/boys-by-ella-hickson/

“Love, Love, Love” by Mike Bartlett

at the Royal Court, Wednesday 2nd May 2012

*The performance reviewed was a last preview*

It’s hardly a new observation that there is a struggle between the generations, but it’s such a rich subject for debate that Mike Bartlett just can’t leave it alone; all three plays of his I’ve seen have ruminated on this discussion, and for me they never get boring. It’s easy to see where the scope came from for Earthquakes in London and 13, for in Love, Love, Love (originally produced in 2010 and now revived at the Royal Court), Bartlett prefigures his broad, multi-voiced work with a biting look at how this fight has overwhelmed and dictated family life. Though the somewhat pessimistic ending is a little bewildering, we are beforehand treated to a wickedly funny and searing exploration of this oft-visited theme.

Split into three acts, which occur in 1967, 1990 and 2011 respectively, the play charts the course of the relationship between Kenneth and Sandra, who fall in love during a time of ‘change’ before managing to ruin the lives of their children through pure selfishness and greed (though if you’re all grown up you may view this argument differently). The most interesting act is the second, which portrays Kenneth and Sandra in middle-age with teenage children Rose and Jamie who seem to be chastised for having the exact same desires and worries their parents had at their age.

Bartlett’s dialogue is extraordinary, mimicking the rhythms and cadences of everyday speech whilst allowing room for theatrical speculation (“All families are boring. That’s why London was invented. So you can move away”). He manages to have us in stitches one moment before flipping instantaneously to leave us floored with emotion. Tom Gibbons’ sound design supports these shifts wholeheartedly, pumping music through the auditorium so we’re in no doubt about the sentiment being channelled and Lucy Osborne’s three different sets slowly open and brighten up, whilst the tone becomes ever-more oppressive.

Under James Grieve’s direction, the five-strong cast gives stunning performances. Victoria Hamilton and Ben Miles as Sandra and Kenneth manage the impressive feat of convincingly pulling off portrayals as nineteen, forty-two and sixty-three year-olds in one night, keeping high levels of emotion throughout. We love them and hate them, want to be them and want to hit them, and as much as their arguments are debatable, their conviction is utterly faultless. George Rainsford’s Jamie is dim but charming, Claire Foy as Rose gives a strong-willed, headstrong voicing of the audience’s frustrations and Sam Troughton as Kenneth’s brother Henry is subtly hilarious, managing to throw a spanner in the works of the clear-cut generation divide, our only misgiving being that he is not on stage more frequently.

What’s most remarkable about Love, Love, Love is the way Bartlett manages to voice the concerns of both the younger and older generations without being partisan, meaning we are constantly questioning who to blame and our own positions on the matter. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to voice my protest in a theatre so much as during Sandra’s Act Three speech, which writes the young generation off as people who “don’t read… don’t work and … don’t think”, though the brilliance of Bartlett’s writing is that there are surely moments when older generations in the audience wish to do the same during Rose’s rants. Unfortunately, the choice to have Rose pursue a career as a musician means the debate loses a little of its universality, and Bartlett doesn’t offer any kind of solution for the ending is far too cynical for a play which seems to be working its way towards a satisfying climax. Then again, maybe that’s the point; depressingly, no matter what we try and how much things change, the animosity between the young and the old is perpetual.

“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.


at Commodity Quay, Saturday 10th September 2011

Anyone who believes that there are certain issues which art shouldn’t tackle is wrong. End of story. Just as there can be bad art about the most basic of issues, there can also be extraordinary art which tackles the most profound questions. Headlong Theatre has proved that no stone should be left unturned in the quest for truth, representing a wide selection of viewpoints on the World Trade Center attacks. Decade is a provocative, exciting and entertaining piece of theatre which never once shies away from the subject matter.

Rupert Goold has taken a collection of short plays from several writers and meshed them together. One thing unifies them; they all represent in some way an opinion on 9/11, delving into the lives of survivors, widows, historians, nurses and politicians who were affected, directly or indirectly. Lively, pedestrian choreography from Scott Ambler and brash, loud music by Adam Cork mix with Goold’s direction to mirror theatrically the cacophony of voices which fight to be heard. Yet even before we enter the space, the point is made that the voice of authority is always the one which prevails, as we are searched and questioned in a customs-style process – although those in power want these to be the only voices which are heard, the real human arguments cannot be suppressed.

Perhaps the most successful playlets are the monologues. Simon Schama’s Epic and Recollections of Scott Forbes, edited by Samuel Adamson, give the most direct and clear opinions, and are performed as wholly believable lectures by Tom Hodgkins and Tobias Menzies respectively.Ella Hickson’s Gift, about a gift seller who capitalises on the emotions of women after Ground Zero tours, and Harrison David Rivers’  not resentful at all give some humorous opinions on the aftermath.

We are also shown vignettes which highlight how tolerance has been compromised post-9/11. The Odds, by Lynn Nottage, shows Islamic members of the community slowly becoming ostracised, and Rory Mullarkey’s Trio with Accompaniment suggests we are all guilty of prejudice on public transport.

One storyline which runs throughout, Matthew Lopez’ The Sentinels, charts the progress of three women who were made widows by the attack as they meet on September 11th each year. We watch as the years go backwards from 2011 to 2000, seeing how their lives have changed and subsequently asking what life was like before the towers were brought down. The performances of Emma Fielding, Amy Lennox and Charlotte Randle here are mesmerising.

But Decade is far more than the sum of its parts. For, while each play makes a point on its own, it is together that they resonate. The scene changes are among the slickest and most engaging I’ve seen; Ambler’s choreography is seared onto the mind, just like the images of citizens jumping from windows. The final moments include a chilling song created by text messages sent on the day, reminding us of Cork’s recent success in London Road and asking us to feel emotion where before we were asked to think.

Miriam Buether’s design is staggering. We are in Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. On each end of the room are views of Manhattan, and on another a glass-fronted walkway which is used to great effect. The attention to detail is astonishing; we are even given a menu to peruse before the play begins. It is lit with flair by Malcolm Rippeth, and the dust on the shoulders of Emma Williams’ costumes completes the startling picture.

Decade is collaborative art at its best. Goold brings together a selection of sources which sometimes disagree and sometimes overtly contradict, yet the production never feels anything but cohesive. There is glue in the desire to question and debate one singular event, and no one is ever deprived of their right to speak. The epic is made human and vice versa, and spectacle is never far away. This is theatre.

“Earthquakes In London” by Mike Bartlett

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Thursday 26th August 2010

Young people have always blamed the generation before them for ruining their lives and making life difficult. The current younger generation, however (of which I myself am a part), has it worse. Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London demonstrates the mess our planet is in and the need for rulers of the future to take action now whilst enjoying the life they have. Under the direction of Rupert Goold the play is portrayed in a suitably epic and involving way, and whilst the script is at times in need of trimming we still understand the major points being discussed.

It could be argued that the story is largely irrelevant, that it is simply a vehicle through which Bartlett can explore environmental issues. Of course a narrative is necessary, but it doesn’t on its own depict issues which haven’t been depicted before. Essentially we follow a trio of sisters (Sarah, Freya and Jasmine played with no inhibitions by Lia Williams, Anna Madeley and Jessica Raine respectively), throughout a period of two days in their dysfunctional lives. They each have to deal with problem partners, problem jobs and problems in the world around them. As mentioned above, however, the story of these central characters merely allows access into the world of environmentalism.

The main question Bartlett asks in the play is how best to deal with climate change. We are treated to some wonderful set pieces describing our troubles (a stand-out one being the sisters’ father Robert using his house keeper as an analogous tool), but the most interesting scenes depict situations in which choices can be made to change the world but aren’t. Early on a young Robert is bribed into skewing research to disprove global warming and Sarah (a Lib Dem MP) almost joins forces with a global airline corporation. It is these wrong decisions which are being made daily that are putting our planet in jeopardy. As long as power-holders and money-grabbers keep choosing to “stick their heads in the sand” and ignore the “gathering storm”, there is no hope left.

Although this cause is entirely justified and Bartlett does a sterling job in portraying what is wrong with the current system, he takes up too many pitchforks at once. Quite aside from having a monumental dig at all those who do nothing to help the environment, he also questions the morals over peaceful and non-peaceful protest, whether or not it is right to envisage an apocalypse, the rights of a mother and unborn child, urban freewheeling and even Facebook. It is this vast conglomeration of ideas which makes the play at times hard to follow, causing the production to lose focus.

Use of the absurd in Earthquakes In London should also be questioned. Up to a point many obscure ideas and musical numbers make sense and fit well into the rest of Goold’s adventurous staging, but the moment we see a metaphysical world in which angels exist Bartlett has gone too far. The cause of fighting climate change needs to be addressed but can be done so away from fanciful storytelling. The focus should be on the issue and the drama can be found in that. Deciding to use this other-worldly element does not fit with the rest of the realities on show in the play and adds nothing whatsoever to the drama.

It is Goold’s staging and Miriam Buether’s innovative set design that make the play stand out, however. They do at times take away from the important issues, but generally involve the audience and make them implicit in the action. Buether’s set design turns the Cottesloe into a promenade space, with a long S-shaped bar snaking through the middle and portraying the way society has strayed off our path. When actors make their way into the audience areas we feel a desire to dance and shout along with them, creating the sense of one big party. This is strengthened by Alex Baronowski’s visceral and diverse music and the half-naturalistic, half-symbolistic projections of Jon Driscoll.

As always with Goold’s productions he directs his actors perfectly. The ensemble all create fine performances, but standing out are Williams, conveying the irritability of a tired MP, and Raine, portraying the wild frivolity of youth. Anna Madeley as Freya holds the play together while her character falls apart. Geoffrey Streatfield and Tom Goodman-Hill as confused husbands also impress, and Bryony Hannah as 14-year-old Peter, with some of the best lines in the play, is constantly captivating.

Earthquakes In London is an important play which tackles important issues, and in doing so is incredibly ambitious. It is this ambition, however, which sometimes lets the text falter, suggesting that Bartlett should have taken a closer look at more specific issues. Goold’s direction however allows the script to soar and means that this production should not be missed. Hopefully it will mark the beginning of a tidal wave of serious theatre grappling climate change.