Earthquakes hit the National
Playwright Mike Bartlett tells Andrzej Lukowski about his apocalyptic new work, 'Earthquakes in London'
'There's a great quote from Tony Kushner,' grins Mike Bartlett, 'where he talks about a play being like a lasagne, stuffed full of everything and on the brink of collapsing. That's brilliant, I think.'
The 30-year-old playwright is sat here, on a sun-splashed outcrop of the National Theatre, discussing his new play 'Earthquakes in London'. You don't need to read much of it to see why Kushner's remark has been on his mind: the first direction states that 'Everything is represented. It is too much.'
What does this mean? Well, for starters there's Bartlett's trademark breakneck, naturalistic dialogue. In other respects, though, 'Earthquakes…' is a departure, radically different from last year's ultra-stripped-down Royal Court hit, 'Cock'. There are roughly 40 characters, seven or so concurrent plots strands, scenes that crash into each other like waves and the stage directions - which I've been sworn to secrecy over - read like a series of demands for miracles. Audience members sit on barstools in the heart of the action. It's rooted in the now, but diverts to 1968, 2026 and points in-between. What's it about? Global warming. The coalition government. The merits of Coldplay. Guava fruit. The entire future of the human race. Those sorts of things.
Crudely speaking, though, this is a play about life in London. Not one corner of London, not the London of 1968, or last week, or yesterday, but the whole city, right this second. Characters glug Starbucks beverages, listen to crappy dance remixes, attend burlesque shows, go shopping in Liberty. Everyone is in perpetual motion. It is aggressively, eye-poppingly 'now'.
'If I'm going to write a play about London,' says Bartlett, 'I'm going to write a play about contemporary London, about the things we all do every day. You know: we get 30, 40, 50 emails, we drink seven cups of coffee, we handle all these meetings, almost everyone in every job does 101 things. If you're going to try to put London days on stage then I think that “too muchness” is what you put on stage.'
Yet amid the mania, it becomes slowly apparent that 'Earthquakes…' is at heart the story of Freya, the quiet middle sister to fiery politician Sarah and 19-year-old fuck-up Jasmine. Pregnant, disillusioned and convinced of impending tectonic disaster, Freya is counselled by a delinquent schoolboy to 'get off [her] arse and fucking do something'. And so she sets off on a hallucinatory odyssey that takes in synchronised swimmers on Hampstead Heath, an old lady who reverts to proud youth, a truly disturbing collective of young mothers, a traumatic trip to hospital, an encounter with - and I quote - 'Marina from Marina And The Diamonds', all building to a seismic climax on Waterloo Bridge.
It's a hysterically bizarre journey, yet Freya's adventures also wrestle with a question familiar to most of us. Is it right for her to bring a child into this berserk, damaged world? She is undecided; the people she meets are unafraid to wade in with their two cents.
'It's one of those conversations people are having a lot at the moment,' nods Bartlett, 'either academically or about other people. For me, I think that it may be a bad thing to have lots of children, but of course my child will be worth having. And of course we all think that, so we all have a problem. So you have the Chinese government with the one-child policy, you have James Lovelock saying we [might have to] sort out our problems in terms of overpopulation and climate [by temporarily suspending democracy]. For me those dilemmas are really interesting, and we will all face them in our lives absolutely personally over the next 50 years. I think I just wrote the play to get us thinking a bit about it.'
On the page it's astounding, but Bartlett's very visual vision of 'too muchness' remains risky. One suspects the National Theatre would have been less eager to foot the bill for Bartlett's audacious stage directions had director Rupert Goold and his Headlong company not been attached from the outset. Astounding things are being expected of Goold, and post-'Enron' that's not unreasonable. But there is, ultimately, the danger that it may all prove an exhausting sensory overload.
But more striking than Bartlett's calm faith in Goold and designer Miriam Buether is his vocal belief in the public. 'Audiences are clever; if you can enjoy “The West Wing” and “The Wire”, you can easily keep up with this,' he smiles. Leftfield 'Earthquakes in London' may be, but Bartlett is adamant that this is about normal Londoners, and for them too. It's an attitude no better summarised than in his explanation for incorporating the entire lyric of Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida' into the text.
'Some people in the theatre world or art world are quite sneery about Coldplay and bands like that. But people get married to these songs, they literally play them at their weddings. Most people in this country invest in these pop songs hugely and live their lives to them; they don't do it ironically, they express their emotion through them. I don't want to be sniffy; I put that song in because I want to say that Coldplay are part of the texture of our lives, that we should put that on stage and celebrate it.'
He may call it lasagne. But - success or not - no one's going to forget this feast of ideas very soon.
'Earthquakes in London' is at the National Theatre, Cottesloe until Sep 22.