Mike Bartlett’s new play 13 is a piece about belief and the shaping of leaders. It looks at the connections that we, within society, have between us, but also the impact of these connections in a global community. Threatened by the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear programme, the United States’ government presses upon its relationship with the United Kingdom to declare war. Meanwhile an informed ‘messenger’ who has the ability to speak to the public and unite them against an imposing war leads to half a million ‘disciples’ descending in peaceful protests in London. 13 is naturally a reflection on our society, and the recent rioting that the country has been through in protest against the changes to our society, our national services and our relationships with foreign affairs.
Whilst the premise of Bartlett’s 13 appeals on paper, it seems to take an amble through a series of interlocking stories that at first seem more at home in a science fiction novel. A series of fragmented narratives reveal the same circumstances, each character experiences a reoccurring dream of “monsters and explosions”. These horrific nightmares are connected through the arrival of John (Trystan Gravelle), a solitary calming figure who sees people as if they are transparent, honest and raw. He preaches the belief that the future of the country is “in their hands'”.This unnerving atmospheric quality steadily builds throughout the first act, helped by Tom Scutt’s ominous cube structure which dominates the Olivier stage. Yet this unearthly quality seems to dissolve just as quickly as it was developed with Bartlett’s text as it becomes a comment upon political workings, social structure, and very loosely (and as suggested in the programme), the online social networking and connections spurred through Facebook and Twitter during moments of unrest.
There is a distinct feeling of unrest and unresolved action in 13. If Bartlett’s text is to blame for the meandering narrative, Thea Sharrock’s direction does little to steer it in a direction of meaning. Never quite getting to the heart of the metaphor, nor exploring the connected characters more adventurously, 13 becomes rigid and unoriginal. 13 has the qualities of so many previous productions, that it seems more a recycling of themes than a new important message or piece of political theatre.
Whilst lacking in dynamics from Sharrock’s direction and Bartlett’s text, the cast as a whole cope admirably. Gravelle’s John rises to the challenge of an inspiring thought-provoker, and works well against Geraldine James’ Prime Minister. James manages to capture an air of solitude that a leader endures when making dicisions that could leave 100,000 people dead over two years, as would the case be if a war was started upon Iran.
As previously mentioned, Scutt’s design for 13 is a curious one, which at times produces a dramatic affect upon its audience. The cube structure that haunts the Olivier auditorium evokes the proposed plans of the US Embassy in Vauxhall, and the complex puzzle of a Rubix Cube. Yet this dramatic imagery seems, especially in the second half, disappointingly disjointed. Such a powerful design is underused and much like Bartlett’s text itself, leaves very much unresolved.
It is a shame that 13 feels overcomplicated, but beneath these interlocked narratives, there is a wealth of interlocking meanings and metaphors that someone who is willing to see beyond the poor narrative could enjoy. Bartlett raises some interesting questions about the political figures of our government; do we elect leaders or just ‘managers’ for our countries? There is a moment during an encounter between Ruth and John where Ruth makes it clear that she appreciates the “different perspective” that John can give to her actions, and in many ways the same can be said for 13 as a play. It’s just a shame that on this instance the perspective is a feeble one.
13 is playing at the National Theatre until 8 January 2012. For more information and tickets, including £5 Entry Pass tickets, see the National Theatre website.