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Print Version

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Sophie Roberts
presented by The Actorsí Program

at The Basement, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 6 Nov 2012 to 10 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Poppy Haynes, 8 Nov 2012

Across a discontented city, Londoners are all wracked by the same nightmare. Students protest fees hikes, a resentful granny vandalises her bank, a precocious child appals her mother with atheism and aloofness, the Tory Prime Minister considers war with Iran.

Something is rotten in the state . . . and the malaise is distinctively contemporary. Into this atmosphere of gloom and unease comes John, returning after a long and mysterious disappearance.

Armed with a bucket to stand on and a somewhat amorphous message of tolerance, spirituality, and social revolution, John begins preaching in the park, gathers a following, explodes on social media and is soon the face of a protest that is anti-war in name, but in spirit is more a focusing of the country's general discontent.

But the prophet-cum-political activist and the Prime Minister have a shared past, and the Prime Minister knows things that can decide whether John's groundswell flourishes or fizzles. These are the circumstances of British playwright Mike Bartlett's audacious play 13. And this is the play The Actors' Program has chosen for its inaugural graduation production.

The fourteen graduating actors rise to the challenges of Bartlett's script, giving a performance that is energetic and compelling. The skills of director Sophie Roberts, voice coach Kirstie O'Sullivan and movement coach Michele Hine are evident, as is the students' professionalism.

All the characters are played with commitment and authenticity; scene transitions are swift and unobtrusive; both small-group and crowd scenes are cohesive (these are clearly actors who know how to play off each other's energy); and there is solid vocal technique across the board.

The actors even make a good go of channelling the different accents of London: no small feat. It's tricky enough to go from a New Zealand accent to any type of English accent without sounding generically posh. While the accents aren't flawless, the vocal landscape the actors created is nonetheless impressive, from the East-End academic to the snotty private-school lawyer, to the American diplomat family.  

The team makes good use of the wide and relatively shallow playing space. The width of the stage area means scenes can chop and change quickly, shifting attention from one side of the space to the other and into the middle of a new scene almost before the preceding one has finished. This helps maintain a sense of momentum. The width of the playing space is particularly effective when scenes are overlaid simultaneously; the sense of things coming to a head is created in part by the overlapping voices but also by the vista of conflicts between the different characters.

The intimacy of the theatre (low ceiling, tightly packed seating, actors close to the audience) makes for a particularly sensory experience: you can smell the fumes of the graffiti-ing protestors' spray paint, you can feel the vibrations created by the actors' physicality in the protest scenes, John's loudspeaker is an in-your-face volume.

That nearly all the sound is created on stage adds to the sensory immediacy. The notable exception is the cacophony of cellphone rings in a moment that seems almost straight out of Cinderella: the clock strikes and the coach/ pumpkin spell is broken – except that John has been playing fairy godmother at a protest, not a ball. The fairytale touch is appropriate given the fable-like qualities of the play.

13 is a good choice for a graduation show. Collaging together a number of different characters' stories, it's a play without the hierarchies of main character and minor characters. Each actor has an opportunity to show his or her potential.

I don't want to cherry-pick names because the play's real strength is the energy between the actors rather than the performances of any particular individuals but Lauren Gibson should be commended for her Prime Minister – she not only captures prime ministerial authoritativeness but also gives an authentic performance of an older role.

Jordan Mauger, Holly Shervey and Louisa Hutchinson form an intriguing, conflict-riven family unit. Alex Macdonald is a convincing posh asshole, Samuel Christopher is a convincing posh atheist. Anoushka Klaus, Steve Ciprian, Mikassa Cornwall, Tatiana Hotere, Torum Heng, Simea Holland and Jess Sayer all form particularly strong relationships with other characters and are great in protest scenes.

For a cast that seems to include a lot of young women, it's a testament to the actors' abilities to embody their characters that it doesn't feel like a play with an imbalance of young women. And Jordan Selwyn plays a multi-dimensional John – from a man of quiet charisma to a suit-wearing, loudspeaker-wielding, evangelising Youtube-hit.

While a good choice for a graduation show, Bartlett's script itself also leaves me with some niggling dissatisfactions. John's earlier disappearance remains a mystery and without a backstory for his prophet-like return it's hard to come to grips with his character's true motivations. The play is overt, even heavy handed, in its philosophical meditations and soul searching: atheism vs spirituality, cultural relativism vs spreading democracy, the market vs the state. The shared nightmares, along with John's messianic abilities to see people's illnesses, are non-realist components in an otherwise realist story and much is made of them, especially the nightmares. But Bartlett does not commit to this magical-realism, and neither the nightmares nor John's super-human knowledge are fully explored or utilised in the story. To me the nightmares are too important to the plot to be functioning only on a metaphorical level.

Nevertheless, Bartlett's ambitious play makes for enjoyable theatre – it carries the audience along – and the Actors' Program graduates have put together a commendable production.
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