Challenge Accepted [by James Wenley]
I got a sneak preview of 13 when I went to the shows at the upstairs Basement Studio the night before. A cacophony of shouts and screams impossible to ignore rose from the floorboards below. Whatever was happening downstairs, it sounded explosive.
13 is an audacious choice of play for The Actors’ Program graduation showcase: the first public performance from the first year of actors from a program that has arrived to radically shake up acting training in New Zealand. Much rests on the fortunes of these 14 actors to demonstrate the program’s success. No pressure then.
13, by British playwright Mike Bartlett is a very challenging prospect. The characters are challenging: some actors are required to invest in multiple roles, some need to maturely convince in roles with playing ages much older than their own. These characters are juicy too; troubled, vulnerable, oh so flawed. But more than this, 13 is a play of challenging ideas. And it’s the big ones: politics, culture, religion. All presented against a contemporary London with a vacuum of meaning and generational unease. We see protests, state violence, filicide.
13 is the perfect showcase of artists with not just something to prove, but something to say.
The play debuted at The National Theatre in 2011, amongst the milieu of the Arab Spring, London Riots and the Global Occupy movement. It feels current, important, grappling with the implications of this time and place. But in other ways, it feels like all of it has come before: a counter-cultural movement and dissatisfaction with the system that transforms into ambivalence. The protestors of today become the gatekeepers of tomorrow. Sometimes change comes all at once, sometimes it takes a series of incremental steps, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all.
Here is a London that is sick, ugly, battling with its identity and humanity. The Basement wall is tagged with messages, a union jack has been defaced. 13 introduces us to an assortment of contemporary Londoners, including a ineffectual swaggering lawyer, a prostitute, a Downing Street Cleaner, a protestor, an atheistic academic and others (as well as an important American ambassadorial family) . Director Sophie Roberts keeps the action unfolding fast, scenes imposed on one another and cross cutting. The full expanse of The Basement width is used, giving something of a widescreen cinematic feel. Immediately, it’s an overwhelming, and it pays to keep close attention to track these characters. It adds up: characters and connections intersect in surprising ways, and all share the same collective dream of monsters and screams.
The powerful and the powerless are collaged. The self-made Conservative Prime Minister Ruth (Lauren Gibson), espousing the personal philosophy of “hard work” agonises over the decision to go to war with America against Iran before they gain Nuclear potential: how many lives, she asks her military advisor (Steve Ciprian) and American embassy insider (Jordan Mauger), will be lost? The Prime Minister has endured her own tragedies, and the play takes us behind the front to show a lonely and friendless leader for whom ‘the right thing to do’ is shrouded in London smog.
Into this void comes John (Jordan Selwyn), who one day steps up on a blue bucket in a square to preach against the current post-post-modern world view and towards a restoration of ‘belief’. John is something of a blank, a cypher, for which the dreams of the disaffected are projected, elevated to a messianic figure. To the audience, Bartlett complicates the character: he comes with a history, hinted but not totally explained, a former player in the cultural elite and known to the Prime Minister, who has turned his back on his past life for perhaps less than noble reasons.
His ideological opposite is atheist and anti-Islamist Stephen (Samuel Christopher), his former lecturer, whose rhetoric competes against John to close Act One, before he collapses in a fit of coughs.
Bartlett’s 13 sets itself an epic scope and can be likened to a contemporary Greek Tragedy. London is as sick as Thebes. The collage of Londoners are our chorus. John, our hero, and yes, a downfall waits; spectacularly instant in the age of Facebook and twitter. The Gods never arrive to save them.
Bartlett’s writing frustratingly oscillates between glib simplistic argument (The Prime Minister’s War agonies) and an engagement with more mulitfaceted ideas. In the effort to pack in his themes – economic, political, social, theological – Bartlett over reaches himself. The centrepiece argument in Act Two (the other character’s stories falling away) between the Prime Minister, John and Stephen, is an edge of your seat battle of wits, idealism and pragmatism. John, riding an anti-war march, champions the people, the end to the restrictions left and right, and the empowerment of Tweeters, where “the true complexity of the world” exists, the multitudinous sea of voices and views.
It’s an immediately compelling call to action, but to what ends? What comes after? It doesn’t sustain a critical analysis and ignores the wider implications of its message. No viable alternative emerges (“It is not the object of belief that is important but belief itself” John insists), like Occupy, John’s campaign fizzles, and the system, the political machine, solidifies its power.
13 is a noisy play of thoughts and points of view. Sometimes it doesn’t itself recognise the complexities the play itself calls for. What John says, to inspire his anti-war movement, needs to count. It’s brilliant, but isn’t consistently brilliant.
I began the play critically analysing the actors and their craft: some I were familiar with from other productions, some were new, and for some this was their first public performance. If there’s any greater testament I can give them, even with this bias going in, I was soon drawn into their world and completeness of their characters. After a year of intense work, they are an ensemble at their peak; poised, giving and receiving the flow of the play’s energy with precision and passion. They are good, really good, all of them.
I will say this: the success and believability of the play rests more heavily on the shoulders of Selwyn as John and Gibson as Ruth, and they acquit themselves remarkably.
Congratulations to them and the rest of the 2012 Actors’ Program class: Alex McDonald, Anoushka Klaus, Holly Shervey, Steve Ciprian, Jordan Mauger, Louisa Hutchinson, Mikassa Cornwall, Tatiana Hotere, Samuel Christopher, Torum Heng, Simea Holland and Jess Sayer, as well as their industry mentors.
That’s one challenge accepted, and accomplished. I look forward to seeing where these actors go, and what they have to say, next.
13 is presented by The Actors’ Program and plays at The Basement until 10 November. Details see The Basement.