As Mike Bartlett’s 13 opens at the National Theatre, this earlier foray into the apocalyptic and multi-stranded is currently on a UK tour. Earthquakes in London is a huge, sprawling play, both in time and scope, a cocktail of stylistic devices and narrative possibilities.
The snaking staging and immersive nature of Rupert Goold’s original production has been flat-packed for a proscenium stage by tour director Caroline Steinbeis, but it still throbs with energy. Music permeates the piece; there is a burlesque sequence, a chorus line of cloned Sloanes in black sunglasses and some spirited drunken dancing to Arcade Fire.
Bartlett’s play has a kaleidoscopic quality and the story only gradually comes into focus; the connections between the characters are revealed gradually, scene by scene. At the centre of the play are three sisters: Sarah, the eldest, is a Liberal Democrat minister; Freya is lonely, heavily pregnant, and grappling with her fears about brining another life into a broken world; while the youngest, Jasmine, is unanchored in every sense – she has recently been kicked out of university and feels increasingly estranged from her family and surroundings, swigging Ouzo from the bottle in an effort to blot things out. The sisters’ climatologist father abandoned them years ago after their mother’s death leaving Sarah to raise Freya and Jasmine alone; he now lives an equally isolated life in a remote part of Scotland, convinced the world is on the brink of imminent environmental collapse.
Occasionally the characterisation veers close to formula. This is particularly true of the character of Tom, a student protestor whose family in Eritrea are dealing with the tangible effects of climate change. He is the polar opposite of Jasmine, whose half-baked piece of protest performance art seems like a childish attempt to get her older sister’s attention rather than anything more reasoned. Tom’s anger seems justified but it walks hand in hand with a rather sniffy sense of self-righteousness; his fury sings out yet his methods are underhand. As characters they seem too carefully fixed at different ends of the apathy/engagement scale.
The character of Lib Dem Minister Sarah is more intriguing. A woman in a senior role in government with a slightly rocky home life, her principles being slowly eroded, she could so easily have been a caricature but in Bartlett’s hands she is a shaded creation, confident and capable in the political arena yet not devoid of warmth or humour, qualities only enhanced by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s well-judged performance.
Having established this complex and engaging web of characters and stories, the play becomes even more ambitious in its aims, sending out feelers into the future, dabbling in dream sequence and origin myth, a quasi-Biblical reboot of a broken world. For all its audacity it doesn’t quite come off. The play works better as a pluralised portrait of contemporary unease, the growing tide of anxiety, the groping for a solution. This is echoed in the choreography, which is often jagged and robotic. From the identikit Hampstead housewives to the department stores sales assistant who matches her make up to the store’s lighting scheme, the play is stuffed with automatons, consumers, cogs in a machine on the verge of crashing, fussing over their Fair Trade ‘good coffee’ as the world collapses around them.
One suspects that some of the production’s visual originality is reduced by being forced into a more conventional space: seven people frugging in neon wigs does not a wild party make, particularly when framed by a proscenium, and the revolve is decidedly arthritic, audibly wheezing and creaking as it turns. And while the thrust and ambition of Bartlett’s writing is undimmed, little can disguise the fact that the play starts to unravel well before the end.