Who is Mike Bartlett? Is the writer of sawn-off theatrical shooters like Cock and Bull actually the author of the decade-straddling Earthquakes in London and Love Love Love, let alone the teasing pageant King Charles III? Will the real Bartletts stand up?
Bartlett’s two most recent plays suggest the borders of his territory. Bull (premiered at the Sheffield Crucible Studio and transferred to London’s Young Vic), nominated for an Olivier Award, is a curt piece in brilliant lockdown. As three colleagues compete to keep their jobs, workplace bullying becomes a corporate corrida: Claire Lizzimore’s production was breathless, pummelling. As the victim prepared to rise to the bullies’ challenge, the woman behind me muttered, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,’ agonised, under her breath. He did it, and we winced.
Does Bartlett have a distinctive linguistic register? Sometimes… In coruscating plays like Contractions and Cock, the dialogue’s jab and weave, jab and jab, has a needling momentum: Bull too. The violence implicit in Bull is to the fore in Bartlett’s new play, at London’s Almeida Theatre. Yet Game refuses the adrenalin rush, the shock and outrage that makes Bull so upsetting. There are guns, proper injuries, an intent to harm – which is why it’s disturbing that our outrage and guilty excitement are left hanging.
I’d love to know how Bartlett begins work, because his plays are often organised around a strong, startling idea. Britain’s heritage-hobbled constitution presented as a Shakespearean pageant (blank verse, ghosts) in King Charles III. The exclusive romantic ideal stymied by a bisexual hero in Cock. Friendship as a faltering double act (An Intervention). The ideas are almost always provoking in themselves, and suggest their own form: it’s a singular imagination.
[If you plan to see Game, best look away now. Maybe catch you at the last paragraph?]
A great idea also animates Game. Imagine that people-hunting were a sport. Not the bloodlusting ritual of The Hunger Games – but a packaged, diluted entertainment. Done the spa, the paintballing, the balloon ride? It’s the perfect gift for bored couples at their wits’ end, for a gaggle of gal pals, for corporate boys out to impress.
Small game in the show home
The audience, seated in four isolated ‘zones’, spy through the one-way-mirrored walls of a spanking new build that is also a firing range. Customers and a quietly uncomfortable warden watch a young couple go about their domestic lives, then fire when they are in range. It’s initially shocking – but the twist is that the guns stun rather than splatter. After a pause, the couple continue pottering resignedly about their enclosure. The customer feels a tiny spurt of throat-tearing adrenalin; the victims feel a brief alarm. Over the course of a handful of scenes, these responses are deadened. Both hunter and hunted shrug and sigh and trudge on: pleasure as commodity, taboo as banality, exploitation as a chore.
Bartlett and his steely collaborators – director Sacha Wares, designer Miriam Buether, a pedigree cast – create an incendiary theatrical event then immediately douse the flames. Watching through screens and perspex, listening through headphones, everything is removed. We might be monitoring events on distant CCTV. In a final blindsiding move, the cast don’t even take a curtain call. There’s no release, no communal moment: some spectators patter awkward applause, most merely blink and shuffle into the evening.
Some of the response to Game (like this review by Natasha Tripney) has been understandably bemused, because a tension-ratcheting set-up is progressively drained of tingle. Performances have the shine rubbed off them – the economically challenged couple accept their job as small game in a show home, and the strain is evident through the snipers’ sightlines. A snuggle, a shag, a family dinner: all can be curtailed by the unseen customers. It’s a living that becomes a mere existence. But Jodie McNee and Mike Noble (pictured top by Keith Pattison) aren’t required to excavate that dilemma, merely to slump into deadened affect.
Fade to grey
Perhaps that’s what makes Bartlett so oddly compelling – his ability to empty us out so quickly, to launch a technicolor provocation which quickly fades to grey. His trajectories can be cruelly undeviating – ‘the surprising twist,’ as Susannah Clapp wrote about Bull, ‘is that there is no twist.’ Cock remains my favourite play of his, not just because of the intensity and my memory of the outrageously charismatic original quartet (Whishaw, Scott, Parkinson, Jesson, oh my), but because its big idea – the protagonist’s helpless indeterminacy – lends the characters an ambiguity that Bartlett often denies. Without that twist of personality in process, we’re left without choices, wondering what the game is worth.
Follow David on Twitter: @mrdavidjays