ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 6-10

Mike Bartlett is a playwright I hugely admire without liking a single one of his plays. He’s clearly a talented writer engaging with much discussed, much debated ideas within society that are nonetheless rarely broached on stage or on screen, and his plays go into places that few writers want to venture. 13 is no exception. It’s as much a critique of today’s generation and the tools they have for both personal and political revolution as it is a call to arms. However, for me, like many other Bartlett plays, it has a lot more head than heart; it talks more about ideas than it engages with them. As such, it’s a fascinating and risky choice for a graduating class.

Boasting a cast of 14 students from the inaugural year of The Actors’ Program, 13 is a hectic, chaotic show. The first act is a kaleidoscope of scenes and characters, each scene barely making an impression before moving onto the next. The overarching plot revolves around a terrifying shared dream held by citizens of Britain, a Britain that exists somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. There are shades of the situation where Britain supported USA in the Iraq War, which is mirrored here with a USA delegate pressuring the Prime Minister of Britain to go to war with them against Iran. The rest of the characters range from the wife of the delegate to a Christ-like figure who quickly gains a following amongst the masses when he starts preaching in a park. There are many other characters in the mix, spread out amongst the 14 actors. The first half of the play arguably strives to emulate Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, presenting a portrait of a city at this time while also working towards a theme, but it achieves something closer to Pual Haggis’s Crash. As written, the characters come across as sketches more so than breathing people, and although the actors do their damnedest to bring life to them, and are often successful, the characters ultimately resemble pieces on a chessboard.

The second half of the play is much more focused and successful. The scenes allow the characters room to breathe and develop, especially an effective two-hander at the climax between the Prime Minister and John, the Christ-like figure. Unfortunately, the play gets into murkier territory here and muddies the water with a surprising soap opera turn that doesn’t illuminate the play’s themes. It’s a very easy turn for the play to make, and thankfully it recovers with the final few scenes, which are both stirring and affecting.

The year these actors have spent together shows—they work well as an ensemble, moving across the stage as a unit easily, and are appealing to watch. As the wife of the delegate, Holly Shervey is a highlight of the show, providing a cool centre to her character that cleverly foreshadows later developments, while also projecting an admirable moral ambiguity that leads the audience to question her. Mikassa Cornwall also deserves highlighting as a cleaning lady, believably sassy and carefree in the role.

Lauren Gibson also makes a great impression as Prime Minister Ruth. A character clearly written much older than Gibson’s age, she nonetheless holds the stage with authority and clearly telegraphs the doubts held by somebody in this role of leadership. As an older woman Edith, Tatiana Hotere is flat out fantastic, delivering some of the comic moments in the play, but also some of the most affecting ones as well. Again playing a character much older than her years, she gets the physicality just right, and she’s a pleasure to watch.

Two further standouts: Jess Sayer as cynical teenager Holly, coming alive with passion when she sees John preach for the first time and radiating charisma whenever she’s onstage; and Jordan Mauger in a late-breaking monologue that’s delivered in a chillingly simple way, and is the most effective summary of the play’s themes.

The production is surprisingly lavish—and simultaneously stripped back—for a student production. The stage runs the entire length of the Basement space, emphasizing the fact that we’re seeing a wide range of people, and there’s angry graffiti all over the walls, setting the backdrop of a London during political unrest. Andrew Potvin’s lighting design effectively transitions the play from scene to scene, and there are some brilliant moments towards the end that really hammer home the play’s best scenes. Jordan Mauger’s sound design is occasionally ostentatious, but works well in moments where there’s the feeling of something rumbling just offstage, out of sight. Sophie Roberts’s direction is effective, uniting the disparate and messier parts of the play into a cohesive piece, and turning out a fantastic production of a difficult play.

13 is a risky choice for a graduation production, and one that isn’t always successful. This is more the fault of a play intent on making a political point rather than constructing a believable, human situation—but it’s a production that demonstrates the talent of The Actor’s Program all the same. It all comes together in the final scene, giving each actor a great chance to wrap up their character’s arc, while also affording the play its finest moment: showcasing a generation caught up in its own malaise, with the tools to do so much and change so much, only to be crippled by those very same tools.