It was instructive to see this play two days after the revival of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock currently playing in the Lyttelton. Both plays deal with similar issues – politics, war, power and the lack of power. Unfortunately, O'Casey is a great playwright, Bartlett on this evidence, isn't.
This is another play about issues. A war between the West and Iran is looming, an unpopular government is in office, students are rioting over fees. The difficulties I had with this piece, as a play, may be illustrated by the fact that it pretty much succeeded in making me not give a damn about any of these issues. This is because the issues combine with the sheer number of characters to sink those characters. Bartlett fails to pull in a tight enough focus on a small enough group of characters to give them sufficient depth to be convincing, for this member of the audience at any rate. Again, it was instructive to compare 13 with its multiplicity of characters and stories with O'Casey's tightly focused approach. Nor is it simply a question of characters having insufficient time on stage to build a connection with the audience, they also have a collective tendency to end up as mouthpieces. That is, they talk at you in a manner that often feels endless. Yes they present a variety of perspectives (pro and anti-war; Tory and left-wing; religious and aethiest) but almost nobody in this play is ever permitted by the playwright to ask any telling questions of anybody else. They wait for the other person to stop monologuing, and then they get a turn. On these issues, I could get this impersonal experience by listening to the Today programme in the comfort of my living room and with the additional benefit of being able to let off steam by shouting at the radio.
I did in fact spend much of the first act wanting to yell at John, the Welsh Messiah: “He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy”. This messianic figure is never questioned by any of the poor lost souls wandering around after him. Maybe this reflects the reality of followers of cults, but all I can say is it's a theatrical device that is to start with very irritating and eventually just dull.
There are some funny lines in this play. There are some very good performers struggling with inferior material (Geraldine James can look striking and deliver a line, even when it's a dull one, Adam James (presumably no relation) has a moving moment at the end but owing to the patchwork script it packs less punch than it should). Like other flops in the Olivier there is typically pointless use of large scale set and drum revolve which is a pleasant distraction from the script but ultimately can't save it.
Great plays have been written about political and military horrors (Shaw, Granville Barker spring immediately to my mind). The National has such a great play in its repertoire at the moment, but it isn't this one.