So this review is a bit overdue, having seen this production over a month ago I've only now had time to sit down and write it up. 13 is the National Theatre's epic, political offering: a new play written by Mike Bartlett and directed by Thea Sharrock. I went to see 13 knowing nothing about it. It was a group trip for my Making Theatre Politically course, so I knew it would be politically focused to some extent. I'd heard mumblings of some reference to people all passing out at the same time and having visions which reminded me of the dystopian novel Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, but that was all I knew about the production.
As we approached the National the title of the show and its tagline 'How did you sleep last night?' were prominent, and I was excited by the elusive nature of the play. I was, however, proved wrong by this largely disappointing production. There was nothing elusive about this play which insisted on addressing every issue possible within the time limits: as if a list of "political issues" had been made and ticked off in the writing process, after a mere reference to the issue. It tried to say so much, and as a result it said very little.
13 is set in London: a London consumed by sleeplessness, night terrors and an overall sense of impending doom. A number of people experience the same terrifying dream. This on its own is an interesting concept but the way it was portrayed was careless and thus laughable. If the audience were the only ones to know of this shared nightmare the narrative could have been effective but instead the characters shared their experience in moments of cringeworthy exposition. In response to "are you okay?", for example, a character would reveal both insomnia and this awful dream - prompting a "scene-stopping" moment of unity. Rather than being an interesting look into a post-terrorism nation consumed by fear and consequently a nation denied of sleep - it instead felt like an easy, marketable line. Many people in the country suffer from lack of sleep and the question "how did you sleep last night?" would appeal because of its being placed firmly in reality. Its presentation, however, was flippant. It was as if Bartlett had inserted this highly marketable tagline and consequent character exchange into random scenes within the play without any real thought or addition to the narrative.
The play centres around the enigmatic character John who returns to London after years away following a mentioned but never explained incident. He presents himself as a political leader advocating the importance of belief and faith, whatever it may be in. He starts off "preaching" in a London park, and quickly through the use of the internet and social media his ideas and ultimately his charismatic, almost messianic personality go viral. His followers look to him as a source of hope while the Prime Minister sees him as a source of fear. This conflict comes to a climax in a long exchange in the second act between these two characters, plus an academic atheist, debating over the potential declaration of war on Iran.
While the second act focuses on this one static exchange, the first act is a sharp contrast with a chaotic, episodic feel to it. This was one aspect of the play which I enjoyed and looked on with awe. Rather than one scene ending and the characters leaving, the transitions were smooth. Something would be put down by one character and picked up by another. The characters would occupy the same space and yet the division between their scenes was evident. These transitions were innovative - it's a shame the content did not match up to the style.
While some elements such as these transitions were intelligent, other aspects of the play were anything but. With the multiplicity of narratives came an equal number of characters and consequently the play represented a number of social groups. Through an attempt to represent as many social groups as possible, the play did a disservice to each one of them. From the elderly to lower classes to different races the play was unethical in its treatment of these groups. An elderly character being the butt of cheap laughs in the form of a "shock value" rendition of Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In the World)' is just one example.
While I am a fan of a multiplicity of plotlines that are intricately linked , here there was almost a desperate need to show everything to be connected. This is something that often frustrates me - that every character must be somehow, loosely connected and thus responsible for each other's actions. A throw away comment to a stranger resulting in her committing a murder is one thing but to imply complete responsibility on this stranger to me just seems ludicrous. Everything was just a little too neatly tied together.
The only real political issue that was left on my mind after the performance was not that of faith or war, but that of arts funding. To invest so much money in a barely used, spaciously epic but theatrically vacuous giant, rotating black cube is just ludicrous. So many arts venues produce incredible pieces of work that rely on quality writing, directing and acting - yet they lose their funding. Whereas in 13 the National Theatre favours aesthetically "impressive" staging rather than genuinely intelligent political theatre. To me 13 was just a frustratingly gratuitious use of what is now rare funding and failed to make any real political points due to its overly ambitious yet shambolic nature.