Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court plays such as Contractions
turn an unflinching eye on personal manipulation. Last year his National Theatre début Earthquakes In London
(currently on tour) was a vast, sprawling collage covering the whole
gamut of society and whirling around the issue of climate change.
he has tried to combine the scope of the latter work and the sensibility of the former, but in the end the sprawl wins out.
For much of the first half, this looks like Earthquakes
redux. The big event this time is an imminent war with Iran, but once
again we have a government minister (Prime Minister this time), a
mother driven to distraction by a child, and a mouthy (post-)student.
It also raises the stakes of the messianic strain in the earlier play:
here, when John suddenly reappears after being presumed dead for
several years and begins giving talks in a public park about the
primacy of virtue and belief, he gathers an increasing band of
disciples (hence, one presumes, the numerical title, never otherwise
explained but evoking the Christian 1+12) both in the flesh and online.
Trystan Gravelle has a wonderful Welsh orator’s voice in this role, but
there is an adolescent immaturity to the dramatic impetus.
gear changes radically after the interval in a long, pivotal scene in
which John argues his case with the P.M. (Geraldine James). Out comes
the Bartlett so well attuned to deviousness and stratagems, in an
exchange reminiscent of recently ended BBC-TV series Spooks
meditations on the unrelenting ulteriority of the secret state and the
shabby tactics often deployed in the service of supposedly higher
values. This is almost a different play entirely, and a much better
one. But then it reverts, and finally loses focus altogether in a final
series of monologues.
ultimately, is being said? That knowledge trumps belief? But what if
the “knowledge” is based on partial data or outright misinformation?
Then, surely, it comes down to a matter of competing fervours and
senses of certainty? (For we have been shown both secular and religious
fanaticism along the way as well.) Bartlett, like John, has in the
final words of the play “Left us all to – work it out for ourselves.”
The line is delivered with a keen note of resentment: how we hate being
required to do such a thing!
Both here and in Earthquakes
Bartlett is groping towards some sense of a need to reconcile the
worldly and the numinous. In this society, in the 21st century, that
may be an admirable impulse for an individual, but in this case it is
not proving a useful approach for a playwright.Written for the Financial