Mike Bartlett's 13

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Tom Scutt Tom Scutt - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Oct 17 2011

Staging Mike Bartlett's new play on the tricky Olivier stage is proving the biggest challenge in London theatre.

The Olivier is a stage that kills nearly as often as it thrills. An open demi-circle with a steep gallery and gallons of vertical room, it is an epic, semi-classical space which can make a weak production look as exposed as a Spartan baby.

But in recent years, it has also inspired spectacular storytelling from theatremakers who can integrate story with design: the NT's 'War Horse', now a cash cow that has cushioned the venue from government funding cuts, came to life in this space. Teamwork is key to success, with or without puppets. Especially if you're doing something that hasn't been done before.

Mike Bartlett's '13' is a new play about civil unrest in a nightmarish parallel London. It starts with student riots and ends in a big Downing Street set piece, and links them via a dozen individual storylines. It is a big challenge - and opportunity - for talented designer Tom Scutt, who makes his Olivier debut as part of Thea Sharrock's unusually young team.

'The awful version of this play,' says Scutt, 'would be many different rooms in people's houses. Picture frames and lampshades are completely unecessary.'

What he's describing sounds familiar: variations of the big doll's house set, in all its naturalist glory, are wheeled out for numerous NT revivals. What Scutt has designed is as big as a house, but much more abstract and sinister. 'It is basically a big black box,' he explains. 'We've embraced the theatre machine of the Olivier and used all the dark arts it has in its arsenal.'

The cube spins, splits open and has specially manufactured solid walls made from perforated plyboard, which the team reckon will work like a gauze. 'We wanted it to act solid but also be see-through when the lights change,' explains Scutt. 'There was nothing on the shelf that could do that. So we had to put it through a machine which punches each individual hole. It's been working for about a month now, 24 hours a day.'

The team won't know just how transparent it can be until they get it in front of a preview audience. But director Thea Sharrock is impressively relaxed: 'If it works in the model,' she says, 'then it usually works on the stage.'

'13' is very different from 'War Horse' but director, designer and writer are using the same method of trial and error to get it right. Mike Bartlett used to write naturalistic, stinging domestic dramas like 'Cock' and the excellent 'Love, Love, Love'.

Then he came to the NT last year with Rupert Goold and produced a dystopian climate change cabaret called 'Earthquakes in London'. 'I was used to the Royal Court way of writing,' says Bartlett, 'where you finish the play and come to rehearsals thinking “Right, I'll sit back and make jokes for the next few weeks.” But on the first day of rehearsals Rupert turned and said, “I'm not sure about this scene. And that one. And that one. And that one.” It helps to know that's going to happen. But you come to love that process. It ends up more like a devised piece: the actors become the advocates for their characters.'

Bartlett rewrote and responded to Scutt's big design. 'Normally design is a way of expressing the themes in a play,' he says. 'But this way it becomes the theme. The cube could only be a man-made thing, but it is opened up and deconstructed. It reminds me of Schrödinger's cat - which is apt for a play about parallel worlds.'

The cube was a way, says Scutt, of making 'the big statement that this stage requires. There are moments in the play where you just really need to see the characters in a big open universe. So the challenge was creating a massive something that is the biggest nothing you could possibly have. We've got resonances throughout the show, with Blackberries and iPads and laptops: all these black boxes which people put their lives in and have them projected out of.'

Bartlett is clearly enjoying breaking out of his box as a writer. 'I think you set up a question with one play and answer it with the next,' he says. 'All the reviews said that the end of “Earthquakes”, where someone makes a speech and changes the world, was totally cheesy and unbelievable. So that made me wonder. Could someone do that? Could we go with that, and really make it work?'

At least no one can complain, as they have done in the past, that he only writes about families. Or that he's giving the leisured, well-heeled generation that forms the NT's core audience another bashing. 'All the baby-boomers can rest easy in their seats,' he says. 'I made almost a conscious decision: no family. There's a creeping sense of unrest and disturbance which is, I hope, to do with how we feel now. This time, no one's got their mum to talk to and no one's got their mum to blame.'

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