Tuesday, 18 October 2011
A really difficult night at the National watching Mike Bartlett's new play 13 which is about to go to press at the Olivier.
Bartlett, who's yet to turn thirty, is often heralded as a new hope for British theatre. A playwright who can capture the drama of the new world, where communication is as likely to happen by tweet, text or skype as it is by prolonged face to face dialogue and where the technology exists for people to form intimate relationships even if they never actively share the same space. I very much wanted to like it; but unfortunately I found it patronising, complacent and trite.
As with last year's hit, Earthquakes in London, Bartlett's new work is big on ideas. Amongst many other things a messiah like figure, former philosophy student John reappears after six years in the wilderness and begins teaching a doctrine of belief in belief at Hyde Park Corner. Simultaneously a modernising Cameron-esque Tory prime minister, played with Thatcherite authority by Geraldine James, weighs up the moral responsibility of an invasion of Iran. Whilst her friend, John's former lecturer Dr Christopher Stockley, a tweeded atheist in the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins mould, delivers public lectures on the pre-eminence of Western culture. The three character's are linked by Simon, the Prime Minster's son, John's best friend at Oxford, who tragically died jumping of Magdalen Bridge on May Day.
Slowly, and completely unbelievably given the obvious sentimental psycho-babble that he speaks, John begins attracting crowds of upwards of half a million people to his daily orations which have moved from abstract ideas to a more concrete anti-war stance. His evolving popularity eventually forces the Prime Minister to meet him in Downing Street for a reunion and private talks.
For all the intercut dialogue, flashing lights and the weird, hugely expensive set - a towerblock size black cube that performs all kinds of configurative tricks - it's this scene between a young idealist, his atheist former lecturer and the Prime Minister that is the most interesting allowing as it does an ideological and informed debate between received authority and naive idealism to take the stage. This for me was the kernel of a better more intimate and sensible play. It's lost in the vast swathes of the Olivier.
I'm always mindful when writing reviews of work that I don't like that I might just not be getting it. In the mid-nineties I remember critics almost unanimously blasting Blasted, partly because they failed to grasp the bold innovation in form that Sarah Kane was proposing. Some of them later apologised.
Perhaps I'm just too stuck in a concept of makes good theatre to be able to see the merit of the play, but I'm convinced that the A-level and undergraduate students who packed out tonight's preview deserve a greater intellectual challenge than this pseudo-profound attempt to provoke youthful rebellion. There are real causes, real problems and, I hope, real solutions for young people to take a lead in finding. A work like 13 gives the impression of being radical and uplifting, but ultimately it's earnestness does nothing but reinforce the consensual and compliant nature of early twenty first century politics. For all the imposing threat of the enormous black cube this show is, I suspect, as meaningless as a house of cards.