Conflicting generational ideologies, the corruption of power, political disaffection vs. the need for belief, war vs. pacifism, the attractions and perils of free-market capitalism … All that and more is audaciously presented, contrasted and chewed over in “13.” The intellectual plate-spinning of playwright Mike Bartlett (U.K. hit “Cock,” bowing Off Broadway in the spring) would be more satisfying, however, if ambition didn’t so obviously outstrip dramatic achievement.
Twelve rapidly introduced, seemingly disconnected characters — from tired charity worker Rachel (nicely end-of-tether Kirsty Bushell) to Ruth, the Conservative Prime Minister (Geraldine James), to lawyer Mark (Adam James) — all appear to be sharing precisely the same bad dream.
Their fascinatingly surreal linkages collectively suggest a looming crisis in this near-present-day dystopia, rising to a peak as all twelve, willingly or not, fall under the sway of political prophet John (Trystan Gravelle). He appears as if from nowhere and develops a Christ-like presence of unencumbered goodness. His vast following whipped up by the Internet threatens the government, specifically as it stands poised to invade Iran over its nuclear weapons policy.
Working out the links between the disparate characters gives momentum to the more effective first half. How does the God-fearing wife of the U.S. politico fit into the picture? What’s the connection between the atheist academic and the Prime Minister?
Yet once the connections are made, they fail to deepen. Puzzlingly, as if not fully in command of his structure, Bartlett also changes stylistic tack, dropping the more surreal tone in the weaker second half and descending instead to a standard-issue debate with a head-to-head of conflicting ideologies across a table between the prophet and the Prime Minister. Worse, anyone even vaguely conversant with conspiracy thrillers can smell the inevitable routing of the idealist a mile-off.
Although the intelligence of the writing is never in doubt, the theatrical texture wears thin because the diffuse ideas remain underdeveloped.
Bartlett isn’t helped by Thea Sharrock’s fitful production. Her awkward, effortful crowd scenes are unconvincing and although she gives clarity to the cross-cut stories, there’s a draining lack of cumulative energy.
Moment by moment, the actors illuminate their individual scenarios. Adam James brings piercing emotional precision to the lawyer who cracks up under the realization that his all-consuming rage is really directed at himself. And Geraldine James survives the caricature of her high-heels and upswept-hair costuming to breathe life into implausibly isolated Ruth.
Taking its cue from Tom Scutt’s predominantly black set eerily lit by Mark Henderson, Sharrock’s bleak staging is in thrall to a giant, slowly spinning black cube at the centre of the stage that suggests a metaphor whose meaning remains vague. More awkwardly still, its constantly turning surface serves to underlines Bartlett’s uncharacteristic lack of decision about his play’s sense of direction.
His questions about the nature of good and evil in the modern world are bold but an even bigger question is brought to light by the drably staged coda in which the conclusions to the stories of the twelve are trotted out by the actors in a straight line. Why didn’t the National’s literary management persuade Bartlett to take a play of such potential through at least one more major draft?