I’m late to
this party. It’s been getting great reviews and even better
word-of-mouth through August. Anyway, thanks to Tom Goodman-Hill, I got a
couple of tickets on Friday. Mike Bartlett’s an interesting figure. I
guess he has that Next Big Thing status in British playwriting; his Cock
was huge at the Royal Court, missus, and this is a tie-up with Rupert
Goold, whose company Headlong are widely admired.
What’s Earthquakes in London doing? It’s
a panoramic play that stretches from 1968 through the present to an
imagined future, and skitters across London to the Scottish Highlands.
It seems initially like a multistrand piece following a lot of different
stories but in fact we realise fairly soon that the characters are all
interconnected. There are three sisters: one a Lib Dem MP in the new
ConDem government; the youngest is a failing student who dances
burlesque at the weekends, and the middle is, well, pregnant and unhappy
about it. Their mother died young; their father is an environmental
scientist who demonstrated the damaging effect of aviation on the
planet. All daughters hate their father for his misanthropy (he told the
middle daughter that she should have an abortion because the world is
overpopulated). Everyone is going through a crisis: the youngest is
being thrown out of Uni, the MP’s marriage is going through a thing and
she’s thinking of joining the private sector; the middle sister is
having a crisis about the pregnancy and goes on a quest for answers
across London. She encounters young rich mums, and her own daughter, and
ends up on Waterloo Bridge where she jumps. Her husband meanwhile has
gone to visit her father - we see the long story of his research, in
which he is bought by the airline industries and his discoveries were
(voluntarily?) suppressed - though eventually, thirty years later, he
published to acclaim. The Lib Dem MP’s husband has a sort of midlife
crisis and goes on a minor rampage across London. In the last act, the
pregnant woman is in a coma where she meets her mother and gives birth
by surgical intervention.
That’s a long plot description and it
doesn’t even have it all. But this play is an epic with lots going on.
In fact the main turning points are (a) the discovery that the father
advised Freya to have an abortion (b) Colin’s recognition of how
unsatisfactory his life is and (c) Sarah’s decision where or not to join
the private sector.
But it’s complicated and it’s muddied -
and sometimes brought exuberantly to life - by Rupert Goold’s
production. I’ll be honest; most of the time, I think Rupert Goold fucks
about with plays to no good purpose. Macbeth was stupid and Six Characters dreadful. King Lear, which I didn’t see, was reputedly a shambles. Time and the Conways was a production wildly out of sympathy with the play. Enron
was fine but a lot of the fireworks were there in the play. Here,
though, he imparts some extraordinary energy to the production that
powers us through these many broken scenes. In particular he picks up on
the musical cues in the play to create some outstanding moments of -
what? - not musical theatre, but of music in theatre, pop music in
theatre, really: at Colin’s key moment he drunkenly and stonedly sings
and dances along with Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ which picks up
not just the sense of desperate mistrust in the lyrics but the restless
anxiety of the music; there’s a burlesque sequence to Nick Cave’s
wonderful ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’ which is just about on
this side of embarassing; and there’s a bravura song and dance sequence
to Marina & The Diamonds’ ‘I Am Not a Robot’ which almost stops the
show. Thankfully, he’s not gone with the script’s direction to end the
play with REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel
Fine), which would have been as subtle and tasteful as a car park.
What’s going on in the play though? I
think Mike Bartlett is part of an interesting wave of writers interested
in moving entirely away from irony and instead being interested in
speaking sincerely and urgently, even if - and perhaps rescued because
they are - gauche and awkward and naive. In their different ways Dennis
Kelly, Simon Stephens and Duncan Macmillan seem to be in this group.
(With Duncan, I think of this more in things like his Every Brilliant Thing
Facebook group and in his characters’ - and his - tumbling articulacy).
It’s more welcome news that we’ve got past the awful postmodern moment
which was clearly now just about moral and emotional fear than a
genuinely new vision of the world.
Here the urgency is environmental. It’s a
play that urges attention. The end of the first act is a bleakly
anti-humanist vision of the world’s revolt against its population. The
MP’s story suggests something of the cynicism and timidity of MPs. The
last Act-and-a-half is boldly utopian, visionary, magical, stupid,
wonderful and strange. The end of Act 4 - which actually he previewed or
tried out in Fear and Misery in the Third Term,
which I curated for Paines Plough - is the moment where he brutally
confronts the awful people we have become and cries into the wilderness.
It felt, in short, like The Way We Write
Now. It’s a very - self-consciously? - contemporary bit of writing. The
dialogue is fractured and witty; the sentiments are heartfelt in
amongst the chaos and the mess and the urban numbness; the stories are
multiple; the stories morally unresolved; the time is out of joint and
we’re dancing. In its mixture of horror and laughter at the world, I
think it’s close in spirit to my own play opening in a few months,
though my play is perhaps more focused and bleak, his is more epic and
But but but it’s kind of nothingy in
places. The writing is SO determined not to style itself - perhaps
because it wants to capture a snapshot of now - that it risks being
inconsequential. The plot is really exciting but is very unresolved
(hey, I don’t mind an unresolved plot, but this seemed to excite certain
narrative pleasures and then not follow through; it’s a plot-tease) -
why do the sisters hate their father? What actually does happen in the
last act? And then, the production is SO energetic, so flashy, that it
really doesn’t illuminate the play at all; it’s not necessarily a job of
a production to ‘illuminate the play’ but it is very hard to tell
whether it’s a good play or a good starting point.
This is pickiness and probably jealousy
because I enjoyed almost every minute of the play, but I still feel this
theatre of small honesties has yet to find its feet.
Oh and Tom Goodman-Hill is fucking wonderful in this play.