After last year's Earthquakes in London, Mike Bartlett got a lot of stick for an ending that saw someone make a speech that changed the world. So for his follow-up, promoted all the way to the Olivier stage, he took that as his starting point to see how that might actually work. An interesting premise but it does rather leave him with the impossible task of writing this speech, and one of the many problems with 13 is that Trystan Gravelle's messianic John doesn't have anything to say that hasn't been said before, however much social media may help spread his message. John, long presumed dead, returns to London after many years and starts making speeches in a park, which get filmed and posted on YouTube. Popular Prime Minister Ruth (Geraldine James) is grudgingly but steadily moving towards supporting America in a war with Iran. Feisty pensioner Edith (a scene-stealing Helen Ryan) smashes a shopping trolley into a bank's window in protest. And Dawkins-like lecturer Stephen (Danny Webb) brings atheism to the masses. Bartlett's ear for dialogue remains excellent but in trying to write about seemingly everything he's ended up with a play about nothing. The first act's short scenes introduce too many characters to really get to know; when the second resolves the central trio as Ruth, Stephen and John, their lengthy discussion scene is an abrupt, and not particularly interesting, change of pace. (Actually I had a real problem with this scene in terms of Ruth's characterisation as well, as despite having asked to see John herself, for the first half of it she sits back and lets him and Stephen fight it out. I don't buy any politician able to rise to the top job who'd be so content to let someone else speak on their behalf, let alone a female PM, let alone a Conservative female PM.)
One thing 13 shares with Earthquakes is a staging that largely overshadows everything else. This time it's Thea Sharrock directing and Tom Scutt designing. Taking his cue from a "box containing God" in one of Stephen's philosophical arguments, Scutt has put a huge black cube on the revolve, whose walls go opaque in the right lighting and which also comes apart in various ways and fits together like a puzzle. It's absolutely stunning and original and for someone like me who gets excited seeing the Olivier's Drum revolve used in interesting ways, this borders on porn. But once the cube's configurations have been exhausted the play itself didn't hold my attention, and Andy who's a big fan of Bartlett's work was hugely disappointed. Among the many ideas being thrown into the mix are some that might have made good plays in their own right, especially one exploring the practical implications of the old cliche about "what would you do if you knew your child would grow up to be Hitler?" but unfortunately this is largely there to provide a way to bring John down. There's an excellent cast (which also includes Kirsty Bushell and Adam James) but they're mostly playing incredibly irritating characters.
13 by Mike Bartlett is in repertory until the 8th of January at the National Theatre's Olivier.