13 - by Mike Bartlett
Production date Friday 2nd December 2011, National Theatre
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Writer-in-residence Mike Bartlett's latest offering for the National is an ambitious, sprawling look at modern day London that has received mixed reviews from the press, and I can certainly see why. With an ensemble cast of 13 you would hope there is something for everyone, but instead it left me feeling bored and uninspired.
A Christ-like figure arrives in a painfully obviously parallel London of a few months ago, while a group of people are waking from the nightmares that plague them each night. He quickly gains a following of disciples (12 of them, making him the 13th - how clever) as he preaches on a bucket about 'belief' and other vague yet rousing crowd-pleasers. Meanwhile, the female Conservative Prime Minister, who is at pains to remind us is absolutely not Margaret Thatcher, agonizes on whether or not to join the US in a war on Iran. A precocious little girl is killed before the interval presumably to ask us if personal responsibility is greater than government responsibility, and because due to child acting laws she has to be in bed, but the character was so odious I hardly think many judged the mother too harshly. There is a sprinkling of mystery with John's reappearance that takes 2 hours to come to any kind of fruition, but never really feels all that interesting anyway.
Surprisingly the most likable character is Geraldine James' steely Prime Minister, giving a persuasive and passionate defense of Conservative values in a modern world, which was possibly one of the best pieces of dialogue in the whole play. Aside from a comedic cleaner and her nervous yet endearing would-be boyfriend, who gets to regale the audience with some spooky facts about the number 13 in case we'd forgotten the title, most of the other characters felt unfinished, and served merely as superfluous, orbiting, stilted plot devices to facilitate dramatic revelations, which even then it largely failed to do.
The second half, while easier to follow thanks to the pruning of characters, felt far too much like a late night televised debate between a pompous, self important and ultimately disappointing 'Messiah' and an angry, borderline Islamaphobic atheist who happened to be dying of cancer, at which point I was surprised John didn't attempt a 'healing'.
In terms of set design, Tom Scutt's revolving black box center piece completely fails to capture any of modern London's atmosphere, and aside from a few slightly clever moments where the action was contained within the cube, it felt too bland a set. For a minimalist set to really work the action on the stage has to be compelling enough, the writing more absorbing, for the audience to really suspend disbelief and be transported by the actors. When the source material is as dull and insipid as 13 however, a minimalist set doesn't so much highlight the drama on stage but rather the lack of it.
Bartlett has attempted to write a play that interweaves government, politics and personal responsibility with human drama, but for all of its posturing and gesticulating, its angst-ridden riotous youth and social network revolution it is a play without any real direction or point.
There is a preachiness to 13 that I found tedious and frustrating, and I felt I was watching a play that wanted so badly to say something and to be so very profound, but never manages to decide whats its point is. Instead it settles for trying to tell us everything in an overly long plot riddled with monologues that feel like patronizing teachers, led by a sanctimonious and entirely unbelievable Welsh man, a character so irritating that even Trystan Gravelle's performance cannot save him.