Mike Bartlett is not afraid to think epic. After the futuristic Earthquakes In London comes his second National Theatre production, 13, a dystopian look at a society desperately searching for meaning.
Staged in the vast Olivier theatre, Tom Scutt’s set is bare but for a huge black box. Using the stage’s legendary revolve to full effect, the first moments of the play are exhilarating as a ghostly voice asks about our dreams. When the box lights up and the cast of over 20 actors are shown stuck inside, illuminated with fear struck faces, you know you’re in for an unusual few hours.
Set in the modern day but in a world slightly out of joint with reality, 13 centres on London in the days running up to the Prime Minister joining America in an invasion on Iran. People are restless and disillusioned about the power of protests and their say in their countries’ involvement in an inevitable bloodbath.
Numerous characters – from an obnoxious, snotty lawyer to the wife of an American diplomat holed up in a high security flat with only her precocious and quite alarmingly dislikeable 11 year-old for company – flit around the stage going through their everyday lives only connected by one thing: the same nightmare that is terrifying them night after night.
It’s a chilling concept but not the main twist in the story. A young man named John, looking like a dishevelled gap year traveller, arrives in London after having disappeared years earlier, presumed dead. Never explaining to his friends where he has been, he takes to the streets to preach his vision of a better future. Attracting thousands of disciples, he is soon marching with half a million people to the doors of Downing Street.
With the ability to diagnose illnesses and predict when it will rain, and a spooky knowledge of people’s nightmares, John is no ordinary man. With religious language dotted throughout the play, you are left wondering whether John is Jesus Christ or just a chancer with Twitter and YouTube at his aide to create a phenomenon using only 140 characters and an iPad.
If you come to 13 expecting answers to all these mysteries, you’re in for a disappointment. Bartlett leaves a considerable amount to our imagination and what starts as a supernatural horror becomes a political debate on war and the way we live our lives.
However, with strong performances from Geraldine James as the formidable Prime Minister and Danny Webb as a Richard Dawkins-esque philosopher, and a smattering of hilarious surreal moments, it makes for intriguing viewing.