“Those people outside in the square think a thousand things, but there is one thing we agree on – this is wrong”. John gestures somewhere out over the Thames towards St Pauls, where tents of the #occupy movement currently cluster. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote of those involved in the recent years and months of popular global unrest from Tahir to Paternoster, “they wished something to change. In each case, that “something” was different. No one knew for sure whether it meant the same for all those around. But whatever that “something” was, they savored the change already occurring.”
Bartlett is a playwright to savour such changes. In the space of three plays he has moved from microscopic observation to manic theorising, a state of the nation playwright for a post-nation state country, diagnosing globalised anxieties and contemporary pathologies, scribbling vast rambling prescriptions of hope in darkness, salvation in the granite mists of eschatology. Currently on tour, his Earthquakes in London features cataclysm and raves; lost children as figures of redemption; an eye-poppingly dynamic first half and a struggling second; characters that spiral off into lassitude; Coldplay and joggers. 13 has those same ingredients (albeit with the welcome substitution of Coldplay for Rihanna) just as it similarly struggles to pin down its haunting Geists, sacrificing precision for ambition, groaning under its Atlasian load.
13 tries to imagine what a populist grassroots revolt would look like in the UK, and comes to the conclusion that, despite our nations’ globally low levels of religiosity, it would come in the form of a preacher. Played by the quiveringly calm Trystan Gravelle as a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Nye Bevan, John is the anti-Life of Brian, a sober digital-age man of the valleys; classless, storyless, he appears to transcend politics. “Conviction” he decries from his plastic soapbox in the park, as he confronts Geraldine James’ severe and pragmatic Conservative Prime Minister in a Scargillian face-off. Bartlett constructs the two contesting paradigms with audacity; an autonomous networked generational politics, mixed with an Apple-like cult simplicity, faces off against the establishment model, solid and incumbent. As blunt, compelling, and immediately recognisable to the blackberry generation as this might be; along with being dogged, heavy on its feet, and with the slightly static air of a lecture, there is too much plastic in the soapbox. When it comes to the veracity of this political future, we get little that’s solidly believable. When you want the dissective tensions of a Hare you get the broad-side ranting of an Artaud. At times the level of discussion resembles less a Novara and more a young revolutionist’s Andrew Marr show. That this is undelivered new territory for theatre in this country, however, goes a long way to excusing the brightly-coloured facility. Finally someone is dealing with politics as they unfold, with networks and precarcity, late nights and new hopes; delivering young people with weight, where no-one says ‘innit’ before binge-puking on their shoes, and in which mobile devices exist in the world rather than as a fearful distraction from it.
Thea Sharrock’s direction is as swift and fussless as a salute; necessary in the murky world of 13 where disparate characters pass like ships in the night. The Borg ship of a set that houses them, a vast runic block of literal ominousness, is elegantly utile. As the play unfolds these boxes proliferate like handheld devices, and at one point allow the entry of God into proceedings, as cancer-ridden pro-war Hitchens-alike guru Professor Stephen uses them as a teaching aid in one quickfire burst of a lecture. This becomes part of a stitched-in examination of theism that allows an American ambassadorial couple to commit Manichean evil, a rewind to the Blairite combo of domestic sermonising and foreign crusades, and a rejection of the Alpha course and all its free coffee. Again however, in introducing the trance chords of religion Bartlett muddies the mix. Aristotle observed that it is the mark of an imprecise mind to demand more than the subject matter can bear. In Bartlett’s case the furrow he ploughs is fecund, his imprecision comes from his attempts to do the entire field before his shift starts. It’s as if he wants to suck in all contemporary meaning. In looking to mend the post-modern fragment he makes connections like a visionary Encyclopédiste, he plays dot-to-dot with galaxies, the narratives not so much grand as erring on the mystically grandiose.
Underneath all this individual stories wind. Unemployed lecturer Amir (Davood Ghadami) and his activist girlfriend (Kirsty Bushell) deliver a sharp slice of domesticity. As barrelling toff lawyer afflicted with depression and downward social mobility Adam James delivers a superb turn, and his relationship with student Holly, played by the cool-as-a-dubplate Lara Rossi, represents an intriguing detour into the closer-to-home realities of prostitution. Finally all of these characters have their arcs abruptly terminated as they are subsumed into the political movement, homogenised by the chant “in our name”, as Bartlett springboards again like a diver in durational training, this time into a critique of the collective.
As Nietzsche told us, tragedy has its roots in religious life, and we could call 13 an epic tragedy for our times. Moreover, more than any other playwright working today, Bartlett delivers the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. In his writing the dual impulses of will and order meet on a darkened street; evenly matched in a knife-fight, the former in all its greed and impulse reaches too far in a chaotic world, while the decency at the heart of 13 looks to new structures and ways of living. Nietzsche described the Apolline naive artist as one who “with sublime gestures reveals to us how the whole world of torment is necessary so that the individual can create the redeeming vision, and then, immersed in contemplation of it, sit peacefully in his tossing boat amid the waves.” Splendidly leaky, Bartlett’s are texts of civilisation. They shriek and dance against decline, their garbled immediacy and echolalic scope hide a broad-based dissensus that is concrete, talked about on social media, in the streets, pubs and clubs. For all his faults Bartlett is definitely ours. We can look forward with him, and to further definition of his vision that defines a generation, as he, like Nietzsche’s Greek tragedians treads the lines between youthful mythic dreams and pragmatic youthful history.