A new play by Mike Bartlett! A new play by Mike Bartlett! I bought my ticket hoping for Cock (brilliant, intense), but was I actually going to get Earthquakes in London (shiny then tedious)? I was willing to wait four months (while the National sat earning interest on my tickets) to get the answer: what is the ultimate truth about 13?
And the answer is … well, it’s a bit more of the shiny side of Earthquakes. With 13, we have a huge dose of Stuff What Is Happening Now – it’s so clear that much of its formative period was during the summer when the riots were going on. We’ve got old ladies angry enough at banks to smash their windows, a government that is looking to Twitter to understand what “the people” are thinking, and a people who get their news off of their I-phones. And that guy with the shaggy hair and the beard at the airport (Trystan Gravelle), wasn’t he another wannabe jihadi fresh back from training? Extra historical pins are provided by the names of the “President’s aide,” Dennis (his last name was given but in my head he was already Kucinich – Nick Sidi) and the atheist scholar who is the PM’s best friend, Stephen (I heard “Frye” but saw Richard Dawkins – Danny Webb). Underneath it all is a shared nightmare that something “very bad” is going to happen – the world of terrorism keeping would be dreamers up at night. Sure, some historical specificity has been changed to make it fiction (there’s not a coalition government but just a ruling Tory PM – Ruth (Geraldine James)) – and the big political question of the day is about whether or not to invade Iran – but in some ways this play just seems like an alternate version of the reality we’re in. In fact, I posit the play is actually set right now, but the names (of people and places) have (or have not) been changed to protect the innocent (our innocence – or ignorance).
The story. Do you care about the story? The play seems to be mostly about expressing the situation we’re living in, poking a little bit at some of the underlying weirdnesses (people don’t understand what’s going on, it feels like we’re at a historical nexus but no one can really imagine what it might be like in five year’s time), dealing with some moral questions (do people want to believe, when do you have responsibility for another’s actions, how do you do a calculus of death, is liberty only for people that designate theirselves as worthy of it), and sprinkling in a little mystery (what did quasi-prophet John have to do with the Prime Minister’s son’s death? where has John been for five years?). There’s some human interaction – the part where I think Bartlett shows his strongest talent – but amidst all of this ENERGY and GREAT ACTING and POSSIBLY DODGY ACTIVITIES – which dazzled me at the time – there seems to be something missing.
The play is so thoroughly wrapped up in the now that it doesn’t get nearly close enough to the human as it ought to if it wants to be anything more than that play we saw (in 2011) that talked about all of the stuff we were talking about – in 2011. Wondering if a single murderer can be just as wrong as a governmental official “protecting and serving” as they kill is a good question to ask, but philosophy doesn’t tend to build the strongest scripts. Neither do I-pads, video streaming, or giant black cubes shooting around stage trying not very subtlely to imitate the Q’aaba. I walked out feeling very impressed with all of the now-ness but finding very little memorable had happened. This play is much better than Earthquakes, and worth seeing, but for all of its showiness I wish like hell Mike Bartlett would do another play with five or less people in it, and give me something that I’ll talk about, not just on my way back to the tube, but for years later. 13 is just not it. Better luck next time.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 24th, 2011. It is running at least through January 8th, 2012.)