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Review Round-up: Is 13 Lucky for Bartlett?

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Mike Bartlett’s hotly-anticipated follow up to last year’s Earthquakes in London (currently on a UK tour), 13, premiered in the NT Olivier last night (26 October 2011, previews from 18 October).

Across London, people wake up from an identical, terrifying dream. At the same moment, a young man named John (Trystan Gravelle) returns home after years away to find economic gloom, ineffective protest, and a Prime Minister (Geraldine James) about to declare war. But John has a vision for the future and a way to make it happen.

Directed by Thea Sharrock (After the Dance) and designed by Tom Scutt, 13 continues in rep until 8 January 2012.

Matt Trueman

"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 … 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 … 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 … 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.”

Michael Billington

"Bartlett's structure takes time to grasp but employs something of the collage technique of a movie such as Robert Altman's Short Cuts ... Only in the second half does Bartlett's purpose become clear. As the government edges towards support of an American invasion of Iran, Bartlett stages a set-piece debate between the missionary John, the pragmatic PM and the cancerous, Islamophobic academic. Bartlett is saying that we live in a Britain where the old tribal loyalties are increasingly irrelevant … It is easy to point to the play's faults. Even if it eschews realism, it oddly assumes that a decision to go to war rests with the PM alone … But Bartlett has pinned down, in a way few dramatists recently have, the unease that is currently in the air: the sensation that we are sleepwalking into some kind of disaster that may stem from economic collapse, environmental upheaval or the logical extension of the war on terror. Bartlett has his finger on the pulse and for that I can easily forgive his play's improbabilities.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"No one could accuse Mike Bartlett of lack of ambition. In his last play at the National Theatre, Earthquakes in London, he came up with a wild, dreamlike piece about families, climate change and the possible end of the world, which began in the 1960s and ended up in the 26th century. Now he has come up with this new piece in which a Christ-like figure arrives in a dystopian present-day London where the inhabitants are all afflicted by the same terrible nightmare each night … But though the play is no more preposterous than Earthquakes in London, this time around I found myself feeling fidgety rather than spellbound. There is a preachiness about Bartlett’s writing I am beginning to find tedious, and Thea Sharrock’s production, with a design by Tom Scutt featuring little more than a revolving black box the size of a house, largely fails to capture the atmosphere of modern London … Geraldine James impresses as a steely Prime Minister and, most unusually in a modern play, gives a passionate and persuasive defence of Conservative values; and there is strong support from Danny Webb as a militant atheist and supporter of the war against terror who seems to be closely based on Christopher Hitchens."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"The main concern of 13 is belief and the questioning of belief: in traditional forms of religion and radical alternatives, atheism, family, the rewards of books, the democratic possibilities of the internet, capitalism and political conviction … There is a huge amount to admire in Bartlett's writing. But its disparate strands don't coalesce satisfyingly. The first half is intriguingly complicated; in the second, which almost feels as if it is a different play, the intricacies are resolved in a fashion that's too static and reliant on discursive rhetoric. Director Thea Sharrock marshals a large cast effectively … There's some nice work from Geraldine James as the PM, steely but with vulnerability underneath, and from Danny Webb as her guru, while Adam James excels as an obnoxious solicitor surprised by the power of prayer. The result is a memorable essay in widescreen theatre. Politically, it feels naïve. Some of the material appears overstretched, and some seems underdeveloped. But Bartlett's ambition is distinctive and immense."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Mike Bartlett, author of Earthquakes in London, has gone all apocalyptic again, exploring the flaky modish idea that social networks are creating a new kind of popular politics, better than the old sort represented by Geraldine James as the PM … For the first hour and a half, around Tom Scutt’s fabulous giant revolving cube of urban nightmare, a huge cast stride and interact in a series of thin but nicely crafted vignettes of city life: student demonstrators, one-night stands, an American diplomat with a precocious brat, a lawyer (Adam James with a perfect posh swagger) and Helen Ryan as a demented jogging granny who sings Rihanna off-key and gets the laughs … But after an interval of baffled headshaking among the audience (a few of whom left), the play transforms itself … Thatcher MkII scuppers the Welsh windbag, goes to war, and in a poignant dying fall each of the disillusioned disciples speaks, then vanishes back into the humdrum world of individuality and doubt.”


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