Theatre is championed for its ability to react to current events. With talk of social media revolution, impending war with Iran, riots and chasmic class-divide, Mike Bartlett has certainly done that.
Rather than state-of-the-nation, Bartlett does state-of-the-globe and, here, he attempts to cram the whole thing onto the Olivier stage in three hours. It was never going to fit and 13 is overstretched. Broad archetypes serve as political mouthpieces and the narrative skips like a scratched CD to set up a showdown. But, in spite of such faults, the piece captivates throughout. Its direct address demands our attention.
At its centre is John (Trystan Gravelle), a saviour in sweatpants preaching a new world order of genuine choice and possibility from on top of a bucket in a London park. Amongst a group labelled “his disciples” (Bartlett labours his Christ parallels unnecessarily) are a casual prostitute, a reformed lawyer and two activists with whom John went to university.
As John goes viral, this movement amasses followers until half a million have occupied Trafalgar Square to protest against Conservative Prime Minister Ruth (Geraldine James) and her informal advisor, her former lecturer and public atheist Stephen (Danny Webb). Beneath their anti-war cause is a deep-rooted and unpinnable dissatisfaction.
Bartlett’s chief success is in his portrayal of the symptoms that breed this dissatisfaction. Once again, he shows an uneasy world fuelled by coffee and e-numbers. Each night, the whole of London wakes from the same nightmare.
But Bartlett’s real target is atomisation and the cult of the individual. Everyone here is out for themselves - they can’t even remember one another’s names – and, if John catches the zeitgeist, he does so because everyone feels the same problem without actually sharing it. Bartlett shows unity built on the alignment of individual concerns to be inherently fragile.
The second half whittles down to a Newsnight debate as John and Ruth, with the help of Stephen, face-off and, though worthy, it’s not earned in theatrical terms. Nonetheless, Bartlett works hard to leave us with a question rather than a solution, showing how cautious conservatism wins out against equal opposition.
Like Headlong’s Earthquakes in London, premiered last year in the Cottesloe, 13 really needs an aircraft hanger and a cast of hundreds, but director Thea Sharrock does well to capture the piece’s scale. Tom Scutt’s design, a huge black cube revolving in the shadows, is vast and uneasy.
The cast are all in comfortable territory and Bartlett’s archetypes leave little room for manoeuvre. Gravelle suits John’s genial charisma; James, Ruth’s unflinching resolution; and no one does terminal illness as well as Webb. Only Adam James’ rambunctious lawyer and Shane Zaza’s zany student offer a slant on their stereotypes in a big play with its fingers on the pulse, if not its eye on the ball.