Alun Hood on Mike Bartlett: 'The variety of tone is astonishing'
Our critic considers Bartlett's prodigious body of work
With a trio of plays – Marianne Elliott's flashy West End revival of sexual confusion comedy Cock featuring Jonathan Bailey, the barnstorming neo-Shakespearean Trump fantasia The 47th at the Old Vic, and a contemporary riff on Restoration comedy, Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith – occupying major London stages right now, it's fair to state that Mike Bartlett is having a moment. Or more accurately, another moment, since the prolific dramatist has already enjoyed global success, from Broadway to Australia, with King Charles III, while the Almeida has twice mounted – in 2017 and again in 2020 – his enthralling state-of-the-nation drama Albion, both times starring one of Bartlett's regular leading ladies, Victoria Hamilton. Meanwhile, his award-winning TV series Doctor Foster, which ran for two seasons, was pulling in around ten million viewers at the height of its popularity.
Impressive as this triple play feat currently is, it doesn't quite match that of Alan Ayckbourn who had five plays running simultaneously in the West End at one point in the mid 1970s. But what is astonishing about Bartlett's output is the variety of tone, the dissonant, vivid range of voices, and the ability to create confident, epic plays that are breathtaking in their ambition and execution, alongside exquisite, intimate pieces that compellingly explore the minutiae of their character's lives. Arguably, the only other contemporary British dramatist to match Bartlett at present, and whose every new play becomes a theatrical event, is the forensically brilliant James Graham (news of a West End transfer for his late 2021 Young Vic smash Best Of Enemies is keenly awaited.)
Chances are though, if you were to visit the Ambassadors, the Old Vic or the Lyric Hammersmith at the moment without, for some reason, knowing what you were watching, you wouldn't necessarily realise that all three pieces were the work of a single playwright, so bracingly individual and stylistically authoritative are these plays. The only obvious through line, beyond irresistible wit and a scintillating way with the English language, between Cock, The 47th and Scandaltown, is a joy in the myriad possibilities of theatre. Whatever their flaws, each work represents a strikingly different facet of a chameleonic talent.
Cock, first seen in 2009 at the Royal Court Upstairs with a cast headed by Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott and Katherine Parkinson (I wonder what happened to all of them…) is a sporadically explicit, semi-abstract study of bi-sexuality and the labels we attach to ourselves and each other. It's an intimate four-hander that would probably lose a significant amount of its bite if performed anywhere larger than the tiny Ambassadors. Even if the sexual politics in the piece haven't aged well, the elegance of Bartlett's prose remains a source of considerable pleasure.
If Cock represents the writer at his most pared down and stylistically spare, then his other two current offerings, both receiving their world premieres, are anything but…
In many ways, The 47th feels like an unofficial sequel to the internationally adored King Charles III, employing the same Shakespearean blank verse and structure to imagine a future life for some very familiar public figures. Where the latter considered Charles Windsor's accession to the throne with a subplot involving fictional characters engaged in civil unrest, the new piece sees a pugnaciously reinvented Donald Trump in conjunction with his glacial daughter Ivanka (Bertie Carvel and Lydia Wilson respectively, both veteran Bartlett interpreters, and both magnificent here) squaring up to Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie, also terrific) over the US presidency in 2024. Once again, there's a civil unrest plot strand, inspired by last year's storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters, and if it feels even more extraneous than in the earlier play, the main event here is undoubtedly Carvel's uncanny humdinger of a performance, which manages to simultaneously evoke, mythologise and, to an extent, humanise the former President.
If The 47th, like King Charles III before it, is the sort of play that one imagines Shakespeare might create were he writing today, then the rollicking Scandaltown sees Bartlett take on the Restoration. Set in a heightened but appallingly recognisable post-pandemic London obsessed with image and status, it holds a satirical, sometimes grotesque mirror up to the fashions and fads of the time, as did Congreve, Etherege et al back in their day. Savagely satirising social status, virtue signalling, hedonism and the power of social media, all couched in elegant, erudite language suddenly shot through with moments of breathtaking crudity, Scandaltown, for all its stylistic invention and adherence to classical comedy form, is so bound up with the here and now it may prove unrevivable, unlike most of the rest of Bartlett's output. Another reason to get over to Hammersmith is to witness Rachael Stirling, another long time Bartlett specialist (she was starring in a revival of his terrific cross-generational tragicomedy Love Love Love at this very address when the theatres shut down in 2020), getting thrilling comic mileage out of the gloriously monikered Lady Susan Climber, a sexually voracious diva in designer togs, disgraced after some ill-advised tweeting but desperate to stay relevant, and unable to resist the lure of hard cash or indeed hard young male flesh.
At the very least, two brand new Mike Bartlett plays opening within weeks of each other proves, hopefully, that this gifted writer is not planning to abandon the theatre for the more lucrative world of television, where he has also enjoyed huge success with a number of projects, most notably the aforementioned Doctor Foster.
In terms of his stage credits, from the coruscating examination of corporate bullying culture in early one-acters Bull and Contractions through his perceptive look at the divisions in modern society boiled down to an estranged father and daughter relationship, Snowflake, to his heartfelt time travelling extravaganza for the National, Earthquakes In London, to the trio of shows currently playing, Bartlett is an excitingly versatile voice. This spring gives London theatregoers the rare opportunity to sample three richly contrasting examples of his work. Individually, each play is a night out well spent, but seen collectively they are a dazzling testament to the breadth of Bartlett's craft and vision.