Review – 13, National Theatre

Tuesday 25 October 2011

It’s a brave man who calls his play 13.

The opportunities for easy gags (who us?) are almost irresistible.

But then this is the Mike Bartlett who bravely presented his Cock at the Royal Court two years ago which led to much unseemly schoolboy giggling from the back of the Whingers’ unruly class.

Imagine if he ever writes a play called Inch. We can only imagine the programme compilers having great fun debating the order of his writing credits.

So, inspired to defy superstition, the Whingers will present 13 reasons why you may (or may not) wish to fondle a rabbit’s foot in your pocket and visit the National Theatre.

1. Unlike his small perfectly formed Cock (90 mins) Bartlett has produced another Earthquakes in London style sprawling epic that runs for three hours. “Please check with front-of-house staff for accurate timing”. Never ones to defy authorithy we did. This was the first preview; estimates were of course all over the place.

2. The splitting, uppity-downity drum revolve of the Olivier stage is in full use again. Spiffing! The play opens with a massive black cube (see Time Out’s article which includes designer Tom Scutt discussing the logistics of its construction from specially drilled plywood) trundling forward which goes on to spin, split open, rise and drop throughout Act 1. Is it a Rubik’s Cube? Is it the Kaaba in Mecca? Are we being too literal? Or did we just spot the “mood board” photo in the programme?

The cube also features the most impressive single knocker (representing No 10 Downing Street) on stage we’ve ever seen, and we sat through Marguerite.

If only the National would be consistent with their mobile phone warnings. There wasn’t one. This impressively promising opening was ruined for Phil by the man next to him fiddling to turn his phone off.

3. Huge cast. Of course, it’s the National, keep up! Every character is experiencing the same nightmare (and it’s not about appearing in new writing at the Cottesloe). What does this mean? That everyone has the same dreams as in aims and aspirations? We are all linked through social networking? We possess powers we leave untapped? Let the experts to do the thinking; we’ll pass on this one.

4. One of these people is a Tory Prime Minister who is initially well-liked. Nobody we know then. She’s experiencing the same dream too, although she rarely sleeps. A female PM who doesn’t sleep much? Who could this be? But she’s popular? Confusing. She’s played by the wonderful Geraldine James; of course she’s popular.

5. John (Trystan Gravelle) is an inspirational soap box messiah who rallies huge support against the proposed war. There was something about his messianic rallying that reminded Phil of Peter Finch in Network.

6. We’re in London in yet another dystopian future; economic misery, protests led by social networks and a Prime Minister about to declare war. Is it a dystopian now? The overheard mot du jour at the interval seemed to be “prescience”. Was it because someone in the play involved in the “defence” talks is called Liam? Did these clever people spot the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks worn by some of the protesters in the play just like the civilly disobedient group Anonymous? Or is it because November 5th is almost upon us?

7. And yes, we did return after the interval.

8. Phil recently added people riding bicycles to his list of theatrical bêtes noires. This one features a Boris Bike. A first for us, so Phil is willing to let this one go. The people in the row behind guffawed and gasped “That’s brilliant!”. Either they don’t get out much or it was newly-exposed-as-Boris-Bike-fans Wills and Kate.

9. Banks take a particularly crowd-pleasing bashing with Nat West bearing the brunt. Andrew mused that perhaps the brand changes from night to night. Please keep us informed. A bank is, of course, name-checked on the bike’s livery. Phil always thinks of Kenneth Williams when he sees the Barclays name. Can’t think why.

10. The cast coped magnificently against some clanking and banging from that cube which occasionally sought to upstage them at this preview. Genevieve O’Reilly is convincing as the wife of an American representing the US side of the war negotiations. Her over-bright daughter (Grace Cooper Milton on the night we saw it – we think) plays precocious most impressively, managing to be irritating without being irritating in the wrong way. And it was good to see Helen Ryan (remember her as Queen Alexandra in Edward the Seventh?) getting some laughs as a supermarket trolley-enraged grandmother.

11. Director Thea Sharrock pulls the National’s now overdone (think Earthquakes in London, think Decade, think Greenland) Short Cuts-style strands together quite adroitly as the play progresses. A meeting between John, the PM and her (only) friend writer Stephen (Danny Webb) forms a large slice of Act 2 and the play calms down and becomes its most compelling as the debating is commendably even-handed.

12. So what’s it all about then? The word “belief” is repeated frequently which sort of tipped us off. Something to do with having beliefs religious or otherwise and acting on them? Listening to “The Greatest Love of All” would take less time, but is it damning with faint praise to say that would be be less entertaining?

If I fail, if I succeed
At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me

13. The programme runs an article “Social Network Revolution” by Natalie Hanman, which references the Guardian’s analysis of over 2.5 million tweets relating to the summer riots in England, that social networks had “mainly been used to react to the riots, rather than incite them.”

They are clearly not being used to their full potential so scan the icon on the right with your smartphone to find out where the Whingers will next be causing trouble.

Please come and join us. We predict a riot.



21 Responses to “Review – 13, National Theatre”

  1. edthetaxi Says:

    It was Nat West when we saw Saturday’s show, hope Lloyds cop it on Friday’s! Bikes, hmm, the upside down bikes in “Matter of Life and Death” were great, anything to do with Boris is bad.

    • john geoffrey MORRIS Says:

      I saw “13” on Friday 21/10/11 not bying a programme and knowing nothing about the author or his plays.I did not know what to expect .On entering the theatre I was reminded of the film 2001 the silver cube hahging from the ceiling.The night went on from bad to much worse, a poorly written play stretched out to a really meaningless end,nothing explained and all the action made more complicated.Try not to go to see “13” but perhaps you may be tempted like the king” in the all together” in the Danny Kaye song

  2. It’s Nat West in the script – axe to grind? It got a cheer when I saw it!

  3. betsy Says:

    that’s a pretty kind review of a long and dreary play. i thought they should’ve just stuck polly toynbee, richard dawkins and george monbiot on stage to argue things out for a couple of hours. there’d probably have been more sparks, and they could’ve dispensed with the set.

  4. sandown Says:

    To Betsy, above :

    Surely you know that it is the main function of the National Theatre to dramatise the Guardian’s editorial page ?

  5. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    This politics stuff is a red herring. Which is one of the points of the play… not, I agree, that it articulates them at all well.

    Now, either the masks and bike had vanished by press night or my attention was wandering and I nissed them.

  6. betsy Says:

    if it’s not about politics/ideas, what is the play about? not the complex emotional relationships, intricate backstory, or difficult choices the characters keep having to make, i hope?

  7. Mark Shenton Says:

    Ian, the Boris bike was definitely still there at the press night last night! Just before the interval….

  8. scism Says:

    saw it last night, and must say i agree with the poster above that this review is…lets say…generous…

    i felt the whole piece lacked any cohesion – far too many ideas that were picked up and quickly dropped….or brought back in much later as a cheesy deus ex machina (rubys fate).

    lots of set-up of John as a messianic figure, both through the script (biblical character names, 1+12 aposotles) and staging (lots of scenes of him bathed in white light) and his miracles… but this was never resolved at all – his prediction at the end was a pretty obvious sign he was supposed to be messianic…but then nothing.

    in the end, i compared this to being stuck at a party between two people with equally strong opinions, but neither of whom really knew what they were talking about, and altough there were some good points, the overall concluions was that things are not black and white and compromise is the grey area… which would have saved me 3 hours… 2 stars from me

  9. Craig Murray Says:

    I was at the press night yesterday. The play is poorly constructed (plot lines introduced, then abandoned), unbelievable* and becomes very boring after the interval. The second half is a cross between a Newsnight debate and a lecture, via which the writer kindly informs us that it’s difficult for politicians to remain ideologically pure when they take office – wow! The gentleman in the seat behind me gently snored all the way through it.

    The Nat West thing was funny, though.

    *Spoiler re the ludicrousness of the writing – an apparently sensible mother suddenly dismembers her daughter on the basis of two random encounters with a philosophical stranger? A cleaner at No 10 is able to walk in and converse alone with the PM at will? Give me a break.

  10. npm Says:

    I saw it on Monday, and as a fan of other Bartlett plays was very disappointed, particularly by the lifeless characters – usually he excells at characterisation, so I don’t know what happened.

    Fortunately I saw the touring production of Earthquakes In London at Richmond last night and it was if anything even better than the Cottesloe original. Best show in ages and good to have my faith in Bartlett restored – I’m willing to forgive 13 now.

  11. webcowgirl Says:

    Hmm … I liked the play a bit more as I was very up for the “now”ness – but I can’t really imagine it having a very long life, not because its topicality but rather for its general lack of heart.

  12. Patrick Stoakes Says:

    I loved Earthquakes in London, despite its having the worst ending in the history of drama, but this is a mess. There are maybe five or so characters that are so underwritten there is no point having them on the stage. Every idea in the first half is dropped in the second, everyone single one. They have one of the best designed sets I’ve ever seen, and then spend 90% of the time not using it, but either standing around at the front, standing around a kitchen bar at the front, or sitting around a table at the front. There is cleaner who is there for easy laughs only, offering the most condescending portrayal of a white working class woman since Noel Coward died.

  13. Bjorn Simpole Says:

    Saw it last night. Would agree with most of the above. Was expecting a lot after Earthquakesm but this just dissapoints. Also found it incredibly juvenille and the plot is scarcely credible

  14. Fredfanakapan Says:

    I suspected something was amiss when I picked up a Travelex seat for £12 at very short notice. Sorry guys, I have never had such a dull evening at the theatre. Ponderous, laborious, politically very obvious. In the end, it tells us nothing we don’t know. If you want a theatre trip, there’s an ELECTRIC Hamlet going on just down the road.

  15. john geoffrey MORRIS Says:

    I take back nothing about the play etc.but with to-day’s Headline in the Guardian ” MoD prepares to take part in US strikes against Iran” the play’s ending “sounds” and Britain’s involvement is now chilling.

  16. max Says:

    “Surely you know that it is the main function of the National Theatre to dramatise the Guardian’s editorial page?”

    Love it!

    Whatever happened to Nicholas Hytner’s request for ‘a mischievous right-wing play’? It seems he has gone back to NT 1970s default position, with an earnest, long, ‘angry’ piece of agit-prop with corporate name-checking to boot.

    Is this the theatre equivalent of those protesters (not all of them) outside St Paul’s who are unable to articulate why they are there?

  17. gb Says:

    It seemed a few years out of date. In the lead up to the Iraq war this would have been impressive – Instead it manages to be preachy. LOVED the set though – it should have taken a bow at the end – and what a fine knocker!

  18. JohnnyFox Says:

    Having sat through what shall henceforward be known as “Mike Bartlett’s 6 and a half” (i.e. the bit before much of the audience leaves in the interval) I can say without fear of contradiction it felt a lot longer than his Cock.

  19. Does it matter? Says:

    This ‘play’ was atrocious. No I did not last for the second half but after 90 minutes of incoherent, painful, cringing, sanctimonious and patronising dialogue delivered in an unimpressive (im being nice here) manner that wasn’t exactly surprising. What is surprising is that this shite has bluffed its way onto a stage. Horrifically bad. Avoid like a contemporary plague.

  20. zinger Says:

    I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and stay for second half. Mistake.

    The first act is OK. Some clunky dialogue but overall the sort of thing that the National can do well – lots of actors a clever set. A Travellex £12 price tag.

    The second act is a handbrake turn in style. It’s boring.

    Others have said it’s like a Guardian editorial. I disagree – its worse than that, it’s more like a theatrical version of a Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ blog post exchange from people who won’t turn off the caps lock.

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