A country split down the middle. A passionate orator with idealised beliefs rousing crowds of young people to be politicised at political rallies. A female Tory Prime Minister losing her grip on her previously water type public image. Mike Bartlett’s 2011 play 13 has only gained in resonance in the last six years and arrives at Tobacco Factory Theatres as part of Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools graduation show feeling timelier than it did at its premiere. On original showing the critics were measured; respectful of Bartlett’s form and ambition but less blown away than they had been for his previous work Earthquakes In London. Viewed later, from a distance, with less remembrance of Rupert Goold’s propulsive production of the latter, it feels a more complete work, prophetic in ways that even Bartlett couldn’t predict.
Originally premièring in the cavernous Olivier it is a state of the nation play that few modern playwrights get the opportunity to write. Taking us from the highest offices of power into the life of those at the bottom of the rungs it reminded me both of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Richard Curtis’ It shares some of that film’s contrivances, so all the characters in the work, from PM’s to cleaners and the powerful prophet are firmly linked. We may all only be six degrees from Kevin Bacon but here there is a suspicion of schematics joined a little too neatly.
It’s a minor quibble though for a work that spreads its debates fiercely across the political spectrum and doesn’t find any easy answers. A Tory Prime Minister (Laura Waldren) is contemplating supporting a US war in Iran but finds herself opposed by a charismatic backpacker, John (Billy Harris with the boyish idealism and quiet conviction that will produce followers), back after a number of years in the wilderness. He builds his support on a soapbox, through YouTube clips and social media feeds. Soon his speeches are a revolution, a prophet raised to a God. It all builds to a climactic debate in a Number 10 backroom where the personal and political intertwine. The right is poorly represented in the theatre but Bartlett articulates it here, arguments floated about economic policies helping the country and how balance and compromise,’the best choice’ stabilises the country more than the myth of right and wrong. Bartlett never fully reveals who he feels is his antagonist and protagonist, the characters spar like Bolingbroke and Richard bouncing power and righteousness between them.
Director David Mercatali’s production is full of striking visual imagery, from 12 figures standing in shadowy blue that drew an intake of breath at its introduction to the ensemble playing imagery of chaos from their smart devices. His previous work at the Tobacco Factory Blue Heart was all about the small details, a flicker of an eye, a brush of the arm;, the cadence of the line; here he opens up his canvas and paints in broader brushstrokes. Some of the minor roles are a (admittedly entertaining) caricature and there is a suspicion that as the work ratchets up towards its climax, it is only the ones in power that keep Bartlett’s attention.
In their final show as students the BOVTS ensemble does a fine job, there are-as the cliché goes- no weak links. Waldren and Harris are determined opposing forces who scrap over policy and faith until she tops him at his own game and there is terrific support from Ellis Duffy as an arrogant lawyer ready to do battle with the feminists, Euan Shanahan as a gruff Scottish lecturer cum political advisor spewing out political incorrectness while nailing some fundamental truths and Gina Ruysen as a cold-eyed American diplomats wife who finds her life changed after an airport encounter with the preacher. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Georgia Frost who even in a small supporting role still dares the eyes to look away.
It’s a chewy night of theatre that asks a number of searching political questions and refuses to give its audience an easy solution. It’s a fitting climax to the very fine graduating class of 2017.