Mike Bartlett has gained a reputation as one of Britain’s best young playwrights. Ahead of his new play for the National Theatre, he talks to Prospect about creating theatre for the 21st century
The set of Bartlett’s play My Child was part tube carriage, part coffee shop
For over a decade novelists have been fretting about the impact of our buzzing, connected, confusing modern world on their craft. The writer Walter Kirn pinpointed this anxiety in a 2006 article for Slate: “In the age of networked everything, life moves sideways and covers lots of ground while barely touching the earth. The events of the other morning spanned several continents, brought me into contact with dozens of people, touched on themes that ranged from sex to war, and nearly cost me my identity… It should be the stuff of a novel, but I can’t write it yet… A day that’s spent processing electronic signals is hard to dramatise.”
The problem is just as acute in theatre. Modern technology undoes theatrical norms—separating us, scattering our attention, transferring action to the virtual, rather than physical, world. One young British playwright has, however, gained a reputation for finding dramatic forms to address our changing reality.
In October Mike Bartlett’s new play, 13, will open at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium, making him the youngest writer in the past 10 years to have his work staged there. Not only is the Olivier the biggest venue at the National, it’s also the theatre’s most public space, having staged many landmark productions including Howard Brenton’s controversial The Romans in Britain (1980) and Alan Bennett’s hit The History Boys (2004). Yet it is sometimes seen as a haven for unadventurous revivals, keeping the modern world at bay in favour of conservative crowd-pleasers.
Mike Bartlett’s plays, by contrast, overflow with the symbols of modern life. Images pour of out of widescreen TVs, characters check emails on iPads, play games on iPhones, hop on planes, Tweet, text, check Facebook, go clubbing, grab coffee at Starbucks. But Bartlett’s aim is more ambitious than scattering his work with the latest Apple products and namechecking Twitter.
“In the past, if you wanted to speak to someone, you had to go to their room and have a meeting,” he remarks, in his spartan office at the National Theatre Studio in Waterloo where he’s working on revisions to 13. “Now we do so much of that virtually. So when you had five people in a room—what a brilliant place for a scene. Now it happens over email, and the whole thing is atomised and mixed up. I really want to find a theatre that can reflect that landscape… forms that represent what it feels like to live now.”
By the start of 2010, Mike Bartlett had established himself as Britain’s most exciting young playwright. His first three plays for the Royal Court—My Child, Contractions and Cock—earned him a reputation as a “miniaturist,” expertly dissecting British society at the start of the 21st century. So it came as a shock when, last June, Earthquakes in London crashed onto the Cottlesloe stage at the National Theatre, filling it with a cast of over 80 characters as it tackled climate change, globalisation, love, family, the responsibility of one generation towards another and the future of the planet. Zooming from the 1960s to the present day and onwards into the 26th century, Earthquakes announced that the miniaturist had gone epic.
The play divided critics, many of whom felt that it fell apart under the weight of its unfocused ambitions. Despite these reservations, Earthquakes only added to the excitement surrounding Bartlett. Towards the end of the play, one character finds himself on the South Bank looking for the National Theatre. Mistaking the theatre, with its severe, brutalist exterior, for a car park, he asks a passing jogger for help: “That,” replies the jogger, “that’s the theatre. It’s modern. Well…it used to be. Apparently.” No writer is doing more than Bartlett to make theatre modern once again.
Taken together, Bartlett’s plays conjure up an image of the author as cool, young and sharp. In reality, he is reassuringly open, warm and generous. Tall and balding, with his uncultivated stubble, loose-fitting jeans and rumpled shirt, he looks like a cross between Ricky Gervais and Alain de Botton.
“I think the only choice is where your focus is,” he tells me. “Do you write your play thinking about other plays? Or do you look out the window and say, my play is about that—whatever the world is, that’s what I’m after.”
Bartlett’s plays are political, but they are not manifestos. He is reluctant to set out his own beliefs too explicitly, both in interviews and in his plays: “I don’t tend to write articles and blogs because I think if you went into the theatre knowing that this is the writer’s view on x, y and z, it’s just game over for the play.”
Bartlett’s political leanings do reveal themselves in the subject matter of his plays. His work has challenged, among other things, complacency about climate change, the intrusion of corporate language into personal relationships, and British involvement in Iraq. But Bartlett is not the kind of playwright Nick Cohen criticised in the Observer last year when he wrote, “if the National Theatre announces it has found a brilliant young playwright, you know without needing to be told that his or her politics will be a[n]…unforgivably shallow version of liberal-leftism.” Bartlett, who is a fan of Cohen’s work, is genuinely concerned about the dangers of left-wing groupthink. “I think it’s a huge problem in theatre,” he says. “There’s such a consensus over these things, and it’s always woolly.”
Like many of his generation, Bartlett is wary of offering systematic answers to the problems his plays anatomise. At its best his work complicates issues that divide people along ideological lines.
His most recent play Love, Love, Love addresses the generational conflict between baby boomers and their children by focusing on one couple, Kenneth and Sandra, at three distinct points in their lives: in 1967 when they first meet, in 1990 when they are unhappily married with two teenage children, and in the present day when they are divorced and their children have grown up.
Bartlett is a member of what journalists Shiv Malik and Ed Howker have termed the “jilted generation’—those born after 1979 who have inherited all manner of economic woes from their parents’ generation. It is no surprise that Bartlett’s play paints an unflattering picture of the baby boomers. Even in 1967 Kenneth and Sandra’s youthful idealism is barely distinguishable from narcissism and self-interest, and by 2011 they are like overgrown teenagers—complacent, self-obsessed and shallow. Their daughter lays out the charges against them in the play’s final act: “Look at you… ‘If you can remember the sixties you weren’t really there.’ What a smug fucking little thing to say. You didn’t change the world, you bought it. Privatised it. What did you stand for? Peace? Love? Nothing except being able to do whatever the fuck you wanted.”
But the play also rips into Bartlett’s own generation. Kenneth and Sandra are more appealing than their children—livelier, funnier, more independent. By contrast their daughter wraps herself in resentment, blaming her disappointed life on her parents. Their son, meanwhile, is an unengaged waster, content sponging off his dad and wasting away his days playing on his iPhone. The play questions whether Bartlett’s generation is truly “jilted” or whether they are themselves responsible for their predicament. By the end, as the daughter begs her parents for a lift and her parents, oblivious, dance and kiss, neither generation has escaped untarnished.
Born on 7th October 1980, Bartlett grew up in Abingdon, just outside Oxford. Bartlett attended his local state primary until the age of 11, when he transferred to Abingdon School for boys, an institution with an eclectic list of alumni including comedian David Mitchell, all five members of Radiohead and the current Paymaster General, Francis Maude. There, Bartlett became interested in theatre, acting in numerous plays.
However, it wasn’t until he was 16, watching Mark Ravenhill’s classic piece of ‘in yer face’ drama, Shopping and Fucking, that Bartlett started thinking seriously about working in theatre. “I’d seen so many plays at school by this point, but that was the first time I’d seen a play by a writer who wasn’t dead, or wasn’t much older, like Harold Pinter,” Bartlett remarks. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t understand why all plays aren’t like this. Why are so many plays set in the past?’”
Bartlett arrived at Leeds University in 1999, confident that he wanted to become a director. He only began writing, he says, out of frustration: “When I got to university I would read plays and go ‘but these are about the past. Where are the plays that I love about now?’ I couldn’t find them, so I started writing.”
After university, Bartlett moved to London where he won a place on the Royal Court’s influential Young Writers programme. He was taught by Simon Stephens, himself a successful playwright, who remembers him as an intelligent and fiercely-determined student: “I remember really vividly a conversation we had in the back garden of the Royal Court, where I talked to him about a play that he’d been writing about Prince William,” Stephens tells me. “He’d probably be really embarrassed about me dragging that up, but it was a fantastic play: it was an insane kind of fantasy about the future of Prince William, and it had not just political and emotional ambition, but theatrical ambition as well.”
It was not until 2007, however, that Bartlett’s work was first staged professionally. My Child, at the Royal Court, presented a world in which the meek are a very, very long way from inheriting the earth. The plot concerns one man’s struggle to maintain a relationship with his son in the face of his ex-wife’s attempts to cut ties with him. In order to mend his relationship with his son, the man (who is nameless) kidnaps him and takes him to Scotland. Soon, however, his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, Karl, a sort of hollow, post-Thatcherite ubermensch, finds them and beats the man up. It’s only by physically fighting back that he’s able to establish any real bond with his son, who declares that he is finally proud of his dad: “I liked it when you were fighting him….It was good…It was like you were a wrestler. Going mental.”
The play, which questions whether traditional virtues such as kindness and humility have a place in our selfish, materialist, success-driven age, is a relentlessly nasty piece of work. Where one expects to find hope, there are only dead ends. The child at the centre of the play is an emotionally blank, mercenary consumer-addict and his father, who in many ways embodies admirable Christian virtues, still calls his ex-wife a “thick bitch,” solicits a blow job from a prostitute and emotionally blackmails the mother of his ex-wife. Despite the grim material, the play is funny, sharp and ambiguous, unsettling without being hectoring. Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court, says he decided to produce My Child almost as soon as he read it.
Speaking to Bartlett’s contemporaries about his work, one element comes up more than any other: his formal inventiveness. Sebastian Born, associate director at the National Theatre, believes that Bartlett is at “the cutting edge of new writing, not only in terms of the things he’s writing about but also in terms of style and form.” James Grieve, who directed Artefacts and most recently Love, Love, Love agrees: “I think that he’s led the way in the last few years in terms of formal invention. He’s throwing down the gauntlet to a lot of playwrights in this country in terms of the way you tell stories.”
Partly this means importing some of the techniques of film and television: Earthquakes and 13 have the grand sweep of a TV drama series like The Wire, with short scenes darting from the corridors of Whitehall to a supermarket, to a bar, and back again. Translated onto the stage, these televisual tics become unfamiliar and startling. In My Child, the dialogue jumps between locations, cutting back and forth to create a disorientating sense of fragmentation and simultaneity. Earthquakes in London takes that technique even further, with multiple short scenes rapidly unfolding in different parts of the theatre. In Rupert Goold’s original production at the National, some of the audience sat on swivel chairs around an orange platform which snaked through the auditorium. The spectators had to swivel in their chairs to follow the action, creating an experience analogous to that of flicking rapidly between dozens of windows and pages of information on a computer screen.
Ben Power, who helped bring Earthquakes in London to the National, focuses on the way Bartlett’s formal experiments underpin his ideas. “The most important thing he does that I don’t think anyone else does, or at least not so successfully, is a marriage of the political and the theatrical.”
Power cites an example from Earthquakes where Freya, heavily pregnant, encounters a group of yummy mummies on Hampstead Heath. Uniformed in black clothes with black sunglasses and black prams, the women dance and sing to a song by Goldfrapp, serenely batting away Freya’s questions about the future (they don’t worry about it), about motherhood (“How do you manage with it all?” “Easily”), about poverty (“Charity work. Every Thursday. Primrose Hill. We carbon offset holidays”). Eventually the women circle round Freya, wielding their children like weapons, before suddenly throwing them up in the air. The babies explode into a puff of black powder and their mothers disappear. The scene satirises class divisions and the cult of competitive motherhood, but as Ben Power comments, another writer would have made the same point simply by sending Freya to a coffee morning to have an awkward conversation with the women. Bartlett, in Power’s view, “is interested to an almost unique degree in how you can make political theatre theatrically vibrant.”
The next few months will be the busiest of Bartlett’s career. The first nationwide tour of Earthquakes in London begins on 22nd September and Bartlett has also contributed a typically adventurous short play to director Rupert Goold’s post-9/11 project Decade. “Mike’s piece concerns the assassination of Osama bin Laden—but it’s formally influenced by Abbott and Costello,” Goold told me enigmatically. And then, of course, there is 13 at the National Theatre.
13 has the same epic scale and apocalyptic energy as Earthquakes in London, but where Earthquakes felt like a rave on a sinking ship, 13 is a bleaker, more controlled piece. Like all of Bartlett’s work, it’s concerned with present-day Britain, bringing the outside world into the theatre. But Bartlett’s imagined contemporary Britain isn’t an exact replica of the real thing: here, the Conservatives are governing solo, led by a kind of New Tory (think New Labour) prime minister, named Ruth. The play is shaped around two central narratives: in the first, the Prime Minister must decide whether to take military action against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon; in the second, a man named John returns home after six years away. He begins to preach a gospel of belief, not in God but in the idea of belief itself—the requirement to commit oneself to some belief in order to bring about change. John gains a following which gradually becomes a movement of sorts. As war in the Middle East looks increasingly inevitable, the two strands come together with John leading the protests against the impending conflict.
The play is heftier than Bartlett’s previous work, not in physical scale but in intellectual ambition. ”I find myself saying this in a sort of mantra to myself: the thing that has to be big in the Olivier isn’t the set, it’s the ideas,” he says. I really felt that when they did an evening in tribute to Harold Pinter when he died. It was just 15 actors and 15 chairs in the Olivier, but it filled it completely because of the weight of the ideas. You can’t be flippant in there.” The play’s director, Thea Sharrock, who last year won an Olivier award for her production of Rattigan’s After The Dance, agrees, “I think the ideas couldn’t be much bigger—our relationship to faith in 2011, particularly in this country.”
13 seems to have grown out of Bartlett’s own ambivalence about faith of all kinds, whether personal, religious or political. He is instinctively mistrustful of groups and movements, although he accepts they are an essential part of democracy: “When I’m trying to protest I can’t get my hand in the air at the same time as everybody else because I feel like an idiot. You go to a protest and you’ve got all these different groups saying things you don’t necessarily agree with. If I went to a protest, my placard would have to be very long, explaining the ins and outs of my position. But does that mean I never protest about anything?”
Much of the drama of 13 revolves around that tension between the appeal of group solidarity and the individual’s obligation to think independently. Bartlett’s grandfather was a minister, and his grandson was brought up going to Sunday school. He questions whether he has ever actually believed in God, but 13 is refreshingly open-minded about faith. Nicholas Hytner, artistic director at the National Theatre, tells me: “What’s startling is that he comes at the question of faith not from a detached and instinctively sceptical point of view. Whereas writers of my generation might simply recoil in incomprehension from politics that are driven by religious faith, he has grown up in a world where that form of politics is an inescapable fact.”
13 includes one character who has more than a hint of Christopher Hitchens about him, but, despite his admiration for Hitchens, Bartlett has little enthusiasm for the certainties of militant atheists. Their certainty represents the opposite of what Bartlett values in theatre—ambiguity. As he explains, “During casting for 13, we’ll have one actor coming in saying ‘It’s interesting reading this because, obviously, I’m like you Mike, I’m an atheist,’ and another actor coming in saying ‘I’m like you, I believe in God.’ That’s absolutely what I want. It’s not clear what the viewpoint behind the play is. That’s good.”