National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 25 October, 2011
Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court plays such as Contractions and Cock 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. With 13 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.
The 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.
So what, 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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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