Mike Bartlett’s salaciously entitled Cock was received to critical acclaim when it played at the Royal Court in November 2009. Now Bartlett is back with Earthquakes in London, a play that looks set to raise eyebrows in its own right.
Centred around the life of a scientist and his three daughters, Earthquakes ambitiously spans from 1968 to 2525 and back again. The subject matter is also large-scale: a love of excess competing against concerns for the future of the environment.
Although Earthquakes in London is being performed in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre, the smallest of its three spaces, the play itself marks a break from Bartlett’s usual minimalist style. Rupert Goold, director of this world premiere production, fully embraces the theme of excess and the play’s stage direction to use “as much set, props and costume as possible”.
The show opened on 4 August 2010 (previews from 28 July) and will run in rep until 22 September. Did Bartlett’s broaching of a new style cause the critics to quake?
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “It’s a rickety roller-coaster ride of a play, bereft of the governing passion in the great Goold project of Enron, and one that seems to be ticking too many boxes – green awareness, climate change, apocalyptic prophesy, cryogenic self-preservation, fathers and daughters, familial rivalries – without making any distinctive, throat-grabbing theatrical statement… The spectacle includes a strip dance, a deepwater song in Hampstead ponds, four dancing nannies with prams, an eruptive street scene that is simply breathtaking, a polar bear rag week and a suicide leap from Waterloo Bridge that melts, through film and lighting (by Jon Driscoll and Howard Harrison), into a stunning, sudden recreation of the National Theatre itself, in all its concrete non-splendour… Bartlett’s a hugely talented playwright, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he’s saying too much with too little dramatic focus; this is a thoroughly entertaining evening, for all its expensive, pseudo-avant-gardism, and certainly ticks one other box, that of NT summertime ‘adventurousness’.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “With plays such as My Child and Contractions, Mike Bartlett has established a reputation as a theatrical miniaturist. Now he has written a big, epic, expansive play about climate change, corporate corruption, fathers and children. And, even if there are times when Bartlett seems overwhelmed by the sheer weight of material, Rupert Goold has come up with a gorgeously carnivalesque production that is more than a match for Enron… What we witness is both a partial family reconciliation and an acceptance of the need for positive action to save the planet. Far from being preachy, the play is humane, multi-stranded and generally engrossing; and my only reservation is that, in the later stages of its three-and-a-quarter hours, it descends into a speculative, futuristic whimsy… It is, in every sense, a big play that has the courage of its convictions.”
Dominic Maxwell in The Times (three stars) – “Bartlett has written small-scale, emotionally ruthless plays for the Royal Court. This has more scope – and less accuracy… ‘The play is presented using as much set, props and costume as possible,’ say the stage directions – the kind of challenge no director is likely to resist, let alone a showman such as Rupert Goold. So the action takes place on a platform that snakes around the floor of the Cottesloe, or in the two high, shallow stages on either side of the room. It’s exciting to sit among it all… Bartlett has a great ear for dialogue, but there are too many scenes that are entertaining but not strictly necessary… Nothing in here is dull. But there’s too much of it, and the impact is muted.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “This is one of the most audacious productions I have seen at the National Theatre. Previously known for intimate pieces, Mike Bartlett has created something completely different: a three-hour play of startling ambition. Full of ideas and invention, it’s often hard work for the audience. But its messiness is brilliant, and Rupert Goold’s production positively drips with bravura… True, it’s not easy to relate to the characters, and the intellectual arguments are less than heavyweight. But as theatre, the production is frequently mesmerising. Raine and Williams are excellent, and there’s a wonderfully moody turn by Tom Goodman-Hill as a man veering into mid-life crisis. Others feel underused. A cast of 17 performs more than 40 roles, and some of the smaller ones are superfluous… Undeniably flawed, Earthquakes in London is sure to divide opinion. Some will find it exhausting, but this demented carnival confirms Bartlett, 29, as one of our most exciting young playwrights.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “With plays such as My Child and Cock, Mike Bartlett has made his mark as a laser-sharp minimalist. Now he's been encouraged to ‘think big’, as they say, in Earthquakes in London, a sprawling, three-and-a-quarter-hour, five-act epic … Rupert Goold's staging of the piece (a co-production between Headlong and the National) characteristically goes for broke in its flair and flamboyance. An orange S-shaped catwalk snakes through the punters, some of whom sit by it on swivel-chairs, transforming the Cottesloe into a phantasmagorical vision of a louche, moneyed bar and powerfully evoking a society bent on distracting itself from the truth through decadent excess… What's impressive about the piece is its mix of zeitgeist-capturing ambition and irreverent refusal to lapse into tidy-minded preaching… If not as theatrically penetrating, for my taste, as the best of Bartlett's miniatures, Earthquakes in London still scores highly on the Richter scale.”
- Helena Rampley