Mike Bartlett's play 13 examines politics and belief
“Latin’s wise. Greek is sexy.”
Mike Bartlett’s latest play is nothing if not ambitious. Whereas Earthquakes in London looked at climate change and ecological breakdown, 13 is about politics and the part we play or don’t play in decision making. Faced with a society, set in the present where the banks call the shots and where people die in pointless wars, Bartlett questions whether it has to be like this.
Geraldine James is Ruth, the Conservative Prime Minister. Though a woman and a Conservative, she is not a strident Maggie Thatcher, right wing Tory but a leader who believes in hard work and responsibility. “We get the importance of the NHS, of comprehensive schools, of a state which looks after people,” she says. America and Britain are on the edge of embarking on a war against Iran, which potentially can develop its own nuclear weapon, while protestors on the streets of London are demonstrating against the rise in university fees.
Into London comes the enigmatic John (Trystan Gravelle), a young man who has been away for some time but who takes to a soap box in London and starts to talk to people about belief. A group gather round him to listen. Some of the individuals we have already met, Amir (Davood Ghadami), an out of work college lecturer and his girlfriend Rachel (Kirsty Bushell), both of whom John knew before. Mark (Adam James) is a solicitor called to advise Amir, arrested in the demo. Mark has “a paying for sex” relationship with Holly (Lara Rossi) who lives with her grandmother Edith (Helen Ryan). Shannon (Katie Brayben) is the cleaner at Number 10. Stephen (Danny Webb) is a friend and university colleague of Ruth.
There are twelve characters in this cross section of British society, John is the 13th. The New Testament parallels are there. They are joined by the American special envoy Dennis (Nick Sidi) who is in England with his wife Sarah (Genevieve O’Reilly) and their precocious 11 year old daughter, Ruby (Grace Cooper Milton or Jadie-Rose Hobson) who is extremely unpleasant to her mother. What links these individuals is that they are having bad dreams. They wake up in a fright having heard a large explosion from a nightmare full of monsters.
Tom Scutt’s set is a giant black cube which has two levels so people can stand inside the cube looking out. This parallels Stephen’s (Danny Webb) tiny black box which, when opened, he tells us will reveal the nature of God. A confirmed atheist, he opens it and finds nothing. The ominous set uses the Olivier revolve and the first act is a whirlwind of characters culminating in a following for John as half a million people gather to support him and his ideas.
Despite the number of parts, Thea Sharrock’s production has clarity as each character links in. The first act ends with John as a messianic prophet showing people a new way, empowering them to find out what they really want.
In the second act, a political debate is set up between Prime Minister Ruth, her friend and academic, Stephen and the prophet John, now leader of a movement spread through the social media. John is attempting to prevent Britain going to war against Iran but dirty tricks will be used to undermine his support as the politician plays her trump cards. Suddenly it is the winning that is important not the principles.
The performances are excellent from Geraldine James as the compassionate Tory and from Trystan Gravelle, as John whose Jesus like bearing in the First Act had us all convinced that he was the new Messiah. I liked too Adam James’s solicitor Mark ultimately praying and asking for forgiveness in a moving scene with John, and Lara Rossi as Holly, his girlfriend. Helen Ryan, as her forgetful grandmother Edith, doles out cash to Holly, promptly forgets she has done so and stumps up again.
I enjoyed the first act more than the second but 13 is the kind of play you may need to read and see again in order to fully grasp all of its complex threads. Personally I hope that Mike Bartlett will also return to those plays he writes about relationships and families, My Child, Artefacts, Cock and Love Love Love.
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Grace Cooper Milton
Director: Thea Sharrock
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson
Music: Adrian Johnston
Movement: Steve Kirkham
Fights: Kev McCurdy
Running Time: Two hours 55 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Olivier on 8th January 2012
London SE1 9PX
Phone: 020 7452 3000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier Theatre on 1st November 2011