DramaReviewSouth West

13 – Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: David Mercatali
Reviewer: Joan Phillips

First staged in 2011, Mike Bartlett’s play, 13, resonates with today’s world more than ever with its ominous portrayal of a nation on the verge of a social and political breakdown. But sadly its disappointments are much the same.

Bartlett’s depiction of a political system under siege from the rise in power of popular protest movements seems prophetic. Since its initial staging, there have been two general elections and two referenda and each time the power of social media has increased exponentially and the challenge to the establishment magnified.

Bartlett’s 13 starts with a cross section of characters all waking from the same disturbed sleep. Youthful protesters, a forgetful grandmother, an academic, political advisors, solicitor, a graduate and a cleaning lady all wake having shared the same nightmare. Vaguely described, but clearly distressing, this cleverly allows Bartlett to create an undercurrent of anxiety throughout his society, reflecting our own unspecified concerns, and even imagined threats, possibly from the consequences of the financial meltdown or domestic terror attacks. People are uncertain of their future, anxious for their safety. The current establishment has either not recognised the need, or is unable to provide, the security the electorate consciously, or subconsciously crave.

Into this dangerously-created vacuum walks the charismatic John, a messiah-like figure, preaching simple solutions from his mop bucket to crowds hungry for action or change and an antidote to their anxieties. His popularity explodes, social media promotes his popular style of protest and the crowds become ever more militant. The establishment struggles to control order and the disturbances tip into rioting.

A simple dark set, from Anisha Fields, housing the characters upright in darkly illuminated pods, convulsing in unison as their nightmares pass is eerily disturbing; direction from David Mercatali and acting from the entire cast is superb.

Bartlett’s prophetic touch even includes an isolated female Tory Prime Minister about to push through controversial legislation. So far so good, but from here the play starts to creak under its own ambitions and the cracks from its weaknesses start to show. Bartlett throws too much into the mix of social anxiety: from university fees to military imperialism; terrorism and dirty bombs; Isalm and Christianity; but without a focus or coherent narrative. The side stories are often a distraction or important ones unexplained. The main character, John, is not completely plausible and the link to the Prime Minister stretches credulity and tries the patience. The cast continually crosses or leave the set and the frequent, abrupt, or even overlapping, scene changes make the whole feel chaotic and confused.

Despite these shortfalls, Bartlett doesn’t give up on his ambition to tackle his subject and attempts to show the weaknesses in the protest movements arguments and dependency on personalities. As the political aides attempt to show to be ‘anti’ while being easily understood, isn’t enough. It is easy to say what you are against, but harder to say what you stand for and to balance conflicting interests.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Hide the Shark

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