Mercury Theatre Productions’ decision to stage Mike Bartlett’s 13 at the Keble O’Reilly is a daring one. Bartlett’s play demands a cast of fifteen, a long running time, and often complicated staging – but this sort of ambition can only be applauded in student theatre, and director Alex Blanc succeeds in crafting a thought-provoking piece.
The play follows the subtly interconnected lives of about twenty Londoners on the brink of a possible war with Iran. The characters include a Thatcher-like female Conservative minister, an atheist philosopher, and a Christ-like (or is he Charles Manson-like?) leader of anti-war protestors who gains fame through a series of Speakers’ Corner speeches. All these people are tired; each have the same bad dreams – ‘thousands of voices… insects’ – all are grey, worn down and living in pain, even those in high office. The strongest parts of this production are when the personal and the political collide in unexpected, sometimes shocking ways. Blanc’s decision to utilise a split-level staging allows lofty questions of faith and responsibility some emotional grounding: the Prime Minister’s office is raised above the level of the street, and sometimes scenes run in parallel.
Particularly impressive was Maddy Page’s careworn performance as Prime Minister Ruth, skilfully revealing the falseness of her character’s icy carapace of resolve with convincing moments of tenderness and pain – conveying well the responsibilities that come with public office. Similarly, Lee Simmonds’ wandering prophet John exuded a stillness and authority at odds with the generally uncertain, doom-laden mood of the play, and an emotional range from benevolence to real anger. The ensemble cast was largely strong, with the particular stand-outs of Adam Radford-Diaper’s turn as fiery professor Steven Crossley, and Esme Sanders’ bitter and conflicted young prostitute.
Sometimes this production felt disjointed, with many small scenes sometimes not cohering fully into a clear enough narrative. The vast age range of the characters also meant that generational gaps were sometimes not made obvious enough through actors’ physicality or makeup. At points the political commentary seemed rather on-the-nose, with Bartlett’s characters and events too neatly fitting their real-life counterparts – substituting Thatcher for Ruth, Christopher Hitchens for Steven Crossley, invading Iraq for invading Iran. The ‘state-of-the-nation’ genre is a tough one to pull off, and this piece does not quite succeed in capturing the zeitgeist – but echoes of post-Trump populism in John’s speeches and followers’ chants provide an interesting contemporary link.
Overall though, Blanc and his cast should be commended for having the audacity to take on this kind of text, and, albeit somewhat patchily, investing it with moments of real dramatic power.