Mike Bartlett is a promising new playwright. This is his second work to be produced at the National Theatre. The first being Earthquakes in London, and he is only 31 years of age. Impressive. The world premiere of any production is always exciting – there is no precedence other than reputations. It feels like a raw canvas upon which a myriad of projections may or may not appear.
At the beginning we do indeed see a myriad of images, of emotions, of situations blur across the stage. This play comes out strong and sleek. An entire city awakes after a night of a shared nightmare – the insinuations fly like shards of glass. A bad dream, a society gripped by immorality and fear is portrayed through an expertly staged opening. Scene changes are rendered seamless by advanced stage designs that turn in time with the story. These dozens of individual storylines are blended by the large, imposing set. Talented designer Tom Scutt has designed a machine-like cube which rotates opens splits and can appear both solid and opaque due to the perforated material. This really is the star of the show.
The story line begins by unifying a large, diverse cast of characters via a shared mutual dream. A cast full of recognisable thespians is promising. The prime minister, the protestors, a seedy lawyer, and a mixed race family are all disrupted by this terrifying dream – perhaps a reflection of the current state of society, perhaps a shared subconscious or maybe even underlying fear. And here the story begins to falter – trying to compress too many views and subjects simultaneously.
Where the first half of the piece leaves us in jumbled anticipation as to how all of these intricately diverse characters and storylines will conglomerate into a breathing whole, the second half of the play cuts and discards so much of what it has been painstakingly created. Recurrent dream sequences disappear completely to be replaced with an almost comedic dance routine. Characters
suddenly become side-lined, and arguments, which should peak in, merely plateau or worse become hollow. This jumbled plot creates a sense of bombardment – similar to that which our media obsessed world creates on a daily basis. Twitter, facebook, news updates, cultural highlights, reading both right and left leaning papers, that overflow of information and then – suddenly instead of finding enlightenment, one simply feels overwhelmed and undereducated. That is the sense this work conclusively portrays. The noticeable lack of focus and overarching plot leave the audience feeling empty rather than intellectually fulfilled.
In tackling politics, society, religion, and philosophy, 13 raises a number of thought provoking questions. However it fails to do this in any unique or conclusive manner. In the diverse cast of characters, there are a few weak performances, notably Kirsty Bushell and Genevieve O’Reilly who, despite having seen her in three diverse productions, always seems to play the same character. However this was the first public performance so I hope this improves.
In attempting to tackle so much, you clearly feel the playwright is overwhelmed after nearly two hours and suddenly thinks – oh no, I have to wrap all of this up in the last hour and does so in a hurry to the detriment of the work itself. In the final tableau, the audience even laughed at an Alzheimer’s patient suggesting she will take her own life shows how the play fails to hit the mark. If perhaps the science fiction like noise could be removed, the plot cleaned, and the arguments tightened, there is an excellent play hidden within. Unfortunately this draft, despite the imposing rotating cube, fails to reveal it.
13 runs at the National Theatre until the 8th of January 2012.
Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.
The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.
Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.
Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.
Sheehan’s performance as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.
This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.
The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November