The National Theatre in the Olivier
Drove past St Paul's 99% occupation camp on the way to the National. The placards and the protesters on the Olivier stage seemed very topical, as did the breaking news references to riots and recession.
Dramatist in residence Mike Bartlett – his Earthquakes in London very effective in the Cottesloe's claustrophobic night-club – took on the vast spaces of the big house in a state-of-the-nation play which wasn't afraid to talk religion, politics and philosophy at its audience. In fact, many of the themes, and not a few characters, were foreshadowed in Earthquakes.
This time we have, amongst an eclectic bunch of Londoners, a Dawkins figure [author of “Fairytale God”] a conservative PM [an elegant Geraldine James, reasonable but sententious] and a Messianic young man [Trystan Gravelle] who starts his ministry on an upturned bucket and finds his disciples through YouTube.
Bartlett has a good sense of the zeitgeist, and a good ear for the language of every day life – Katie Brayben's Shannon one of several excellent characterizations.
The heavier themes – evil, [Ruby is “not a good child” and meets an awful end in a chilling but incongruous moment] Armageddon, Apocalypse – are sometimes hard to take, though, and whereas I was hoping for twists and reversals after the interval, the piece just got wordier and more didactic.
When John deserts his followers and they lose their cohesion, we are left with a strong sense of the “individual voices” they have once more become - “he's left us all to work it out for ourselves, “ says the cynical soldier at the close.
Thea Sharrock's production boasts some excellent design ideas [Tom Scott] – like the black cubes: a tiny one for Stephen's non-existent God, a larger one suspended above the stage for the in-coming, and a huge one for the first act, at one point stunningly peopled with the figures “in other people's dreams”, which opened up with steps and ladders for the second act.
But the piece does not need the vast stage to work – television would do just as good a job. Genuinely theatrical moments, like the quartet of voices arguing about Iran, were rare.
Two elderly Americans at the interval.
Him: “We're leaving.”
Her: “Are you not enjoying it - I thought it was very good ...”
Worth going along – certainly on the Travelex £12 deal – to make up your own mind.