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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ph: Marc Brenner

If ambition alone was the yardstick by which great drama is measured, Mike Bartlett's 13 would be a strong contender for the best new play of 2011. Unfortunately striving high, while always better than its opposite, is not a sure-fire formula for success, and Bartlett's unwieldy follow-up to Earthquakes in London bites off far more than it and its audience can chew.

Very much a state-of-the-nation play, its setting is the near future. The Conservative government is in power and their prime minister is a tough yet also compassionate woman called Ruth whose in-tray is dominated by the prospect of a war with Iran. That country's nuclear capability is now fully realised and, consequently, poses a serious threat to world peace. The big question is, should she join her American allies who are all for eradicating Iran or seek out a more peaceful solution?

You don't have to be Nostradamus to predict what her ultimate choice turns out to be. Not content with simply pursuing this vital question head-on and unencumbered by subplots and diversions, Bartlett introduces so many other elements to ponder – particularly in the lengthy and often tedious first half – it is difficult to know just what his main focus is.

Why, for starters, is a group of disparate people all experiencing the same nightmare every night? Why are healthy people suddenly falling ill? And what are we to make of John, a young, Christ-like evangelical figure who has been in mysterious hibernation until he suddenly reappears unwashed and unkempt before setting out to win hearts and minds by preaching a gospel of peace and self-belief?

John starts his campaign modestly enough by standing on an upturned plastic bucket and sounding off to a smattering of listeners in Hyde Park, which, thanks to state-of-the-art phone and Internet technology (in contrast to the bakelite phones still in use in the PM's office), soon swells into a vast network of supporters via Twitter and Facebook. 

There's even an unnecessary and totally unconvincing plot line involving the murder of a precocious 11-year-old girl whose mother, heeding John's prescient belief that the child is a monster who should be destroyed for the wellbeing of mankind, decides to dismember her limb from limb.

The shorter second half eventually eschews many of the play's excesses and becomes an often-compelling debate on war versus peace between John and the prime minister, whose son – now dead as a result of a diving incident – was once John's best friend.

Director Thea Sharrock does the best she can to integrate such themes as religion, terrorism, good and evil, and political opportunism. In the end, though, she's defeated by material that's as disparate and fragmented as the majority of the many supporting characters who swirl around Tom Scutt's busy but not particularly evocative set.

The central performances all deliver, especially Geraldine James as the primeminister, Trystan Gravelle as John, Danny Webb as a confirmed atheist and eloquent spokesperson against terrorism, and Adam Jones as an unscrupulous lawyer who discovers the healing powers of religion.

Pity the play doesn't carry the same conviction.    


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