I think it’s fair to say that this play is hard work for an audience. It is thematically dense and structurally challenging throwing a lot of characters at you early in short, sharp vignettes before it finally settles into more traditional storytelling. It’s also fair to say, however, that there are many fine performances by this second year class.
A whole lot of story strands are thrown in the air during a frenetic start – an English Prime Minister being pressured to join America in a war against Iran; various protestors against student fees; the mysterious John who returns from some sort of self-imposed exile who slowly becomes a rallying cry for dissent; an American diplomatic family in London; a cocky lawyer and his assistant; and so on. All have recurring nightmares about monsters and destruction; all seem to be looking for purpose and possibly salvation.
Interconnections slowly come to the fore culminating in the quasi-Christlike figure of John confronting the English Prime Minister at Number 10 while his followers rally outside. He tries to dissuade her from committing forces to Iran; she upholds traditional conservative values in the name of compromise and complexity.
Overlayed on all this is a clear thematic debate over belief and the existence of God. There is an academic who doesn’t believe in God who is a close friend, perhaps the only friend, of the PM. The precocious 11 year old daughter of the diplomatic family reads voraciously and doesn’t have time for fun because there is evil in the world. Her mother, a god fearing woman is appalled at her daughter’s casual dismissal of God. John is a surrogate Christ figure as he preaches on an upturned bucket in the park. He gathers many followers as his thoughts and words are transmitted over social media, filmed by a woman who has sex with men for money. One of which is the lawyer whose carefree attitude to his job and life comes crashing down around him. And so it goes.
There is almost too much thematic intent to hang on an already convoluted structure. The whole thing occasionally sways precariously, almost ready to topple. It also felt overlong as the confrontation between the PM and John, aided by the academic, felt more debate than drama. However, a clear action change for the PM gives the whole endeavour a second wind and it closes strongly. Though, I have to say, the thematic conclusion is ambivalent as John’s fate is executed with clinical precision tied to a horrendous act his beliefs are claimed to have sponsored.
To the performances and Miranda Aitken is excellent as the Prime Minister (Ruth) especially in the second half where her character assumes greater prominence. Playing a much older character it was the stiff bearing, the stillness, and especially the measured vocal tones that really sold this. While giving Ruth an authoritative air, hints of vulnerability and regret seeped through to telling affect. The weight of Ruth’s final decision was writ large on Aitken’s face in the closing moments. It was also her action change from passive listener to passionate defender of Ruth’s beliefs that gave the play its second wind just when things were flagging.
Will McNeill was compelling in another performance that snuck up on me. Initially playing the lawyer (Mark) with “don’t give a fuck” insouciance, his character slowly unravelled until experiencing a full-blown breakdown that was beautifully played. That it had me empathising with a previously unlikeable character was impressive.
If Aitken had a challenge playing a woman decades older then Kate Betcher had a similar task with 11 year old Ruby. She was suitably precocious and annoying but with the brutal honesty of a child. It was a clever portrayal and she worked well with the mother (Sarah) played by Anna Apps who has her own emotional arc that was perhaps the most difficult and controversial of the play. The insistence that what she ultimately does was justified is devastating and haunting.
Lukas Radovich gives John a mysterious air until he springs into action and embraces the role as de facto leader of the opposition forces that swirl around the PM. It’s a level-headed performance in a difficult role that is full of symbolism. Giuseppe Rotondella makes for a passionate Amir; Lachlan Ruffy a somewhat pretentious academic. Sophia Forrest inhabits the oddly conflicted Holly who, in many ways, facilitates John’s ascension and Mark’s downfall.
There were so many good performances here – Elle Mickel continues to impress with her gift at the comic gesture or quirky delivery that really hits the mark; Megan Smart carries a lot of the early action with a committed Rachel; George Pullar is a likeable diplomat who loves his daughter, is concerned for the PM, and has to deal with the most heinous of betrayals.
In a play dealing with lots of weighty topics and big ideas Brittany Santariga introduces an instantly recognisable human touch as her Zia looks for love in unexpected places with all the nervousness and anticipation anyone can identify with. There are some quite sweet moments between Santariga and Emma O’Sullivan as Zia’s prospective new girlfriend.
Directed with flair by Michael McCall in an interesting space over two levels that allowed for various entry and exit points for the actors, this had lots of energy until getting a little bogged down in dialogue heavy debate in the latter stages. The use of a transparent, movable screen to depict the nightmares of various characters was stylistically very effective as was the lighting and sound design.
13 was written by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Michael McCall and stars the second year acting class of Lukas Radovich, Megan Smart, Giuseppe Rotondella, Sophia Forrest, Sarah Greenwood, Miranda Aitken, Lachlan Ruffy, Elle Mickel, Kate Betcher, George Pullar, Alexander Daley, Brittany Santariga, Angus McLaren, Emma O’Sullivan, Will McNeill, Anna Apps, Rory O’Keefe, Joel Davies, and Kieran Clancy-Lowe and is on at the Tricycle Theatre at Mount Lawley Senior High School until 15 October.