What would a 21st century Christ be like? What would society’s need for this figure be, and how would it react to him?
Mike Bartlett’s 2011 play ‘13’ takes elements of the biblical story and throws them into a dense, modern, socio-political narrative. Twelve people across London are having the same nightmare, involving “monsters” and an “explosion”. Meanwhile the young John (Lee Simmonds) has returned mysteriously from being presumed dead. He preaches a message of hope, and then leads a social uprising against capitalism and interventionist war. However, is this really why he wants the Prime Minister’s attention, and what was his history before he disappeared?
It’s an ambitious play, both for the writer and production team: not least because of the large cast and ‘collage’ style of short, interspersed scenes. With this in mind, director Alex Blanc and everyone at the Keble O’Reilly did an admirable job; the performance progressed cohesively, and the audience seemed engaged with the multiple subplots, even if certain characters ended up getting drowned out in the mix.
A silver background with rectangular sections of empty space nods to Tom Scutt’s set design for the original production at the Olivier Theatre, which featured a giant, rotating cube. ‘Boxes’ become an important motif of the play, and Greta Sharp’s design here doubles as a sea of screens. This becomes literal as projections of video footage allow John to preach to the audience via social media. While we watch John on these giant screens, their constant presence in the background gives a sense of them watching over us instead.
This idea extends to the rest of the set, which consists only of two tables and chairs, one of which is small, with a plastic tablecloth, the other larger, wooden, and significantly raised on a high platform. This becomes the Prime Minister’s office, with the more old-fashioned furniture suggesting her conservative politics. While characters follow the news on their screens from below, the Prime Minister (Maddie Page) looks down upon them from her higher position. Especially in a moderately small auditorium, this raised platform lessens the sense of looking down at the stage that an audience might normally have. Are we watching or being watched?
The Prime Minister (Ruth) is a determined neoliberal in the middle of two radicals. One of these is John, and the other Stephen Crossley (Adam Diaper), an atheist academic suggesting a parody of Hitchens, but with more right-wing views. Ruth’s character feels the most well-rounded, and Maddy Page handles the subtleties of the role impressively. While dealing with the responsibility of her job, she is trying to suppress her own personal struggles, partly due to the sexism that she faces in her professional and private life. Several men patronisingly make links between, as she says, “my emotional state and the fact that I’m a woman”. In many ways, she offers a positive portrayal of a “modernised” conservative party, unusual in the arts, although much focus is put on her commitment to start a war with Iran. Other indicators of a crueller nature do emerge, such as implying that her cleaner should be fired as she didn’t vote Tory.
As the plot descends into a debate over the nature of belief, the play increasingly feels like a war between Stephen and John, with Ruth having the deciding vote. Stephen represents pragmatism, and rational thought, but also authoritarianism, racism, and interventionism. John represents hope, optimism, socialism, peace and the power of faith. If this description paints John in a favourable light, the sides are in fact very ambiguous, and by the end we’re lead to feel that both characters have blood on their hands.
While Bartlett is clearly trying not to take a side, there are aspects of the script that I took issue with. He seems to promote the alleged link between conservatism and pragmatism that Cameron’s government endlessly promulgated after the 2008 financial crisis. The implication that right-wing politicians can’t be ideological, or that the left can’t be pragmatic, seems ill-considered. Equally, while Bartlett is right to criticise certain New Atheist dialogue that has come uncomfortably close to Islamophobia, linking racism and warmongering to a broader debate about belief falls flat. War and racism has been (and still is) promoted in secular and religious contexts: linking these issues to atheism is ill-considered.
This may just be a result of so many topics being conflated into the limited scope of the play, and that is Bartlett’s main flaw in ‘13’. Even the significance of the number ‘13’ is lost by the addition of other characters – why not just stick to thirteen?
When Ruth sarcastically says “Ah you’re joking…Ha ha.” I wonder if an actual joke might not go amiss to occasionally break the atmosphere. The points at which Blanc has the actors lie asleep on the stage only to simultaneously wake up in fright provide welcome pauses for reflection from the dialogue: a bit more physicality like this might be good.
Nonetheless Mercury Theatre effectively and enjoyably portrays Bartlett’s broken Britain; a world where politics is inaccessible and out of touch with the public, and the shopping trolley has become the symbol of aggression, a time in which we have online character-assassination in place of crucifixion. I’m left wondering whether the eleven-year-old Ruby is right in claiming that “Britain’s ugly”, or if it’s “just a bad dream”.