A black box dangles, alone, in the centre of an Oliver stage consumed by darkness. The box looks like a Rubik’s cube, only rinsed of colour. Suddenly, the small box is replaced by a similar but massive model, which rumbles forward ominously. Inside this construction, lives a huge host of characters, all of whom have been having bad dreams.
The opening to Mike Bartlett’s 13 is consuming stuff, as the characters emerge from their box and share their gradually interweaving stories. All are having trouble sleeping. All are wary of what the future holds. Lawyer Mark, after years of wrongdoing, is now being plagued by nightmares. The young girl he is paying for sex is equally troubled – as is the grandma she lives with. The prime minister has good reason to be stressed, as her country edges ever closer to war with Iran.
Shadows loom and smoke swirls, as Bartlett’s chaotic, dystopian vision comes to life. It is more than a little bit frightening. Just what haunts these characters at night? Why do they keep jolting weirdly? And why is a booming voice, which sounds like the Milk Tray lady turned bitter, warning us of sleepless nights? And what of this scruffy lad John, who has an uncanny ability to affect and connect with the young?
Yet, even at this early stage, it’s hard to shake off the thought: is this intrigue really going anywhere? This suspicion grows stronger, as director Thea Sharrock patiently draws parallels between the myriad characters with clever, visual links. A sad mother shares the same breakfast counter as a squabbling couple. People put down cups, only for other characters to pick them up again. Scenes mesh together and lines from one scene are picked up by characters in another.
The explicit, visual connections begin to snag. It feels like Sharrock patting us on the shoulder, reminding us what a clever writer Bartlett is. Yes, Bartlett is a very intelligent playwright, who has the guts to explore huge ideas through an intricate maze of characters – but such connections shouldn’t have to be pointed out so blatantly and they start to undermine what could’ve been a much hazier, spookier and more abstract first half.
Fortunately, the momentum is notched up as the act reaches its close and the lingering oddness of the first half is unleashed. There is an exhilarating flurry of unnatural endings, as a grandma discovers a hand in a sewer and the young people’s prophet, John, rises up on a table, seemingly moving mountains. Suddenly, Bartlett’s imagination is flying again and his play feels distinctive and meaningful, with the real potential to say something about the decay, distrust and downright sadness that seems to be pervading our streets, our newspapers, our dreams.
But this weird euphoria is replaced, in a disappointing second half, by a static, political discussion. Suddenly, the play is grounded in reality and relatively conventional, as the prime minister and John talk politics on the eve of war with Iran. Yet, despite this traditional structuring, the context still has the abstract gloss of the first half and the scene lacks any persuasive authenticity. Instead, we get serious (if not pretty vague) political discussion merged with an infeasible political context. They don’t work well together.
On top of this bizarre combination of serious discussion and not-so-serious context, Bartlett also finds himself with various plot threads to tie, left dangling from the first half. His characters, who were once unsettling, start to seem silly; overblown and out of place in this distinct and much flatter second half. Their storylines just stop working.
Following the declaration of war, the actors converge at the front of the stage to offer their last lines. Rather than driving home the play’s message, these final lines only cast the conclusion under further doubt.