Arts review: 13

Mike Bartlett poses big questions about belief in his ambitious new play, but his aims are partially derailed by a lack of nuance and depth, Deborah Bowman finds

November 3, 2011

Credit: Marc Brenner

Mike Bartlett is a playwright who challenges audiences to consider the nature of allegiance: Cock explored the constraining effects of defining sexuality, while Earthquakes in London played with ideological tribalism about climate change. In his latest work, 13, which is having its world premiere at the National Theatre, Bartlett returns to the subject of belief and makes it the central theme. Unfortunately, unlike the subtle and sensitive exploration in Cock and the contemporary and sassy originality of Earthquakes in London, here Bartlett's focus on belief is too overt; lacking in nuance and risking relentlessness.

The location is London and, from the outset, realism combines with dreams, symbols and signs to create a world of urban distress. The menacingly black set, by Tom Scutt, is an imposing and ingenious cube-like structure that dominates the Olivier stage. The cube itself appears to pulse with life and reacts dynamically to the action within. Thea Sharrock's production quickly conveys the mood of the moment and much of it is familiar: it is a time of economic gloom, there is protest in the streets that is neither heard nor understood by those in power, and conflict is in the air as the threat of war with Iran looms and covert conversations with representatives of the US government take place behind closed political doors.

In this uneasy and tense atmosphere, the first act makes efficient use of the large cast. The size of the ensemble is both an asset and a liability. There are moments of brilliance as individuals come together to capture the simultaneous intimacy and isolation of life in a large city where people are constantly physically proximate but often alone. The protest scenes are persuasive and, for anyone working in higher education, that tuition fees and access to university are the subject of the dissent is gratifyingly relevant. There is much that will resonate with readers of Times Higher Education: one of the principal opponents of government policy on higher education is an angry lecturer who has lost his lectureship following the closure of the department in which he worked; The Open University is cited as the undisputed leader in offering access to higher education; and doctoral students are forced to abandon their research for dissatisfying employment to survive financially.

Yet by attempting to show the story and experiences of many, if not all, of these characters in the first act, the play begins to flounder. There are as many as 12 individual narratives jostling for attention in Act One and, despite the multiple coincidences linking these discrete stories, it is hard to engage with the majority of the characters. Characterisation, too, is a casualty of the play's ambition and immense scale. Ironically perhaps in a play that seeks to challenge dichotomies in belief, tribal allegiances and binary ways of thinking, many characters in the first act often appear to be two-dimensional illustrations of "types" rather than complex individuals with rich stories. Despite an experienced cast delivering universally good performances, it is hard for them to transcend the constraints of the characters as written. There are some exceptions: Jadie-Rose Hobson gives as witty and mature a performance by a child as I have seen on the professional stage, and Genevieve O'Reilly is outstanding as her defensive, troubled and anxious mother.

The play's central figure is the mysterious John, who returns to London after a long absence and quickly harnesses the collective need for "something" or "someone" in whom the restless masses can believe. Trystan Gravelle imbues John with charisma and conviction, using his mellifluous Welsh accent to rally and raise his followers to a frenzy of shared purpose by the end of Act One. Yet the purpose to which people have become so swiftly committed is elusive. John evangelises not for belief in a particular religion or politics, but for belief itself. He argues that without commitment to a cause, human beings and the societies in which they live are lost. Indeed, John himself, somewhat unconvincingly, reiterates that belief itself is all-important, rather than the subject of that belief. It matters not a jot that the belief John incites in others is vague: passion, conviction and shared commitment are all. The amorphous nature of the belief about which John is proselytising is evident when his followers ask him for his opinion on the proposed war in Iran. As John's initial diffidence and reluctance to express a view yield to pleas for unspecified alternatives to war, so the sinister power of charisma, unquestioning loyalty and poorly interrogated belief are exposed.

After a couple of short scenes in which individual characters are variously redeemed, destroyed and comforted by their commitment to belief and John's cause, the second act becomes largely three-handed and surprisingly static. John is invited to meet the Conservative prime minister, Ruth. Geraldine James bestows on Ruth convincing authority and touching vulnerability. Present at the meeting is Ruth's old friend, Stephen, an academic who has spent his career arguing that faith without evidence is wholly dangerous and destructive. Although the character of Stephen appears to be inspired by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Danny Webb manages to make him authentic. As Stephen lectures, it is clear that those who oppose idolatry often rely on personal charisma and the uncritical adoration of others to support their work and public profile.

It is only during the meeting between John, Stephen and Ruth that individual stories are allowed to breathe and something akin to a traditional plot emerges. Each character pleads to be heard and, in turn, fails to listen properly. Responsibility for personal and professional decisions is attributed and dodged. Dichotomies dominate the dialogue. Ruth, Stephen and John discuss feeling and rationality, ideology and pragmatism, consistency and compromise, tribalism and inclusivity, conflict and peace, certainty and ambiguity. Tellingly, each does so with confidence, frequent expressions of intolerance and a fundamental belief in the rightness of his or her own position. Even when Ruth claims that she is the most uncertain of those present at the meeting, she is obviously and immovably committed to a belief in pragmatism and politics as the art of the possible; it is clear that one can be uncompromising about compromise. It may be that Bartlett intended to demonstrate the irresistible appeal of "taking a position", even when that position is one of negotiation and apparent openness to multiple perspectives. However, it seems strange that a play with so much to say about nuance, individuality and change relies so heavily on three characters holding polarised and inflexible positions, each of them claiming to represent a significant part of the collective view.

The play finishes by returning to individual experiences. As characters address the audience directly, there are further tantalising glimpses of the fascinating stories that have been stifled by the play's preoccupation with big questions and major themes. The final word goes to a soldier whose closing monologue is concerned with certainty and his quest for assurance that killing another person in war was the right thing to do. It captures well the painful burden of making a decision in the face of uncertainty, but it feels strangely removed from what preceded it, and is a further jarring example of the perils of switching from large-scale debate to individual stories without enabling the audience to invest in, or care about, many of the characters.

13 is a brave and original attempt to address important and interesting questions. Unfortunately, although there is no shortage of style and articulate rhetoric in the play, as a piece it shares the failings of its main character, John. Charisma, conviction, articulacy and energy cannot persuade without attention to depth, complexity and authenticity.

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