Tag Archives: Mike Bartlett

History Tomorrow


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th September, 2015


Mike Bartlett’s hit play turns out to be something of a modern masterpiece.  It’s a Shakespearean history play set in a not-too-distant future and begins with some funereal choral singing by the candlelit cast, a requiem for the late Queen Elizabeth II (a beautifully atmospheric composition by Jocelyn Pook).   There is an additional frisson seeing the play on the eve of Her Maj’s breaking of the record for the longest reign in British history.

The Queen is dead, boys, and Charles succeeds.  The action covers the period between succession and coronation and it soon emerges that Charles will not settle for being a figurehead, rubberstamping legislation willy-nilly.  His refusal to sign off a law restricting the freedom of the press triggers a constitutional crisis, the dissolution of Parliament and riots in the streets.  Prince William, egged on by a Lady Macbeth-like Kate, puts himself forward in a bloodless coup, seeking to take the crown for himself ahead of time.

In fact, blood is the only thing missing from this history.  Bartlett gives us a lot of fun with blank verse (where mentions of Sainsburys and Wetherspoons add bathos and seem anachronistic); rhyming couplets end scenes and there is even a ghostly Diana stalking across the stage, intoning cryptic prophecy.

It’s a very funny piece, peppered with satirical barbs (the script is updated constantly to keep it topical) but in the end it is a tragedy on the grand scale, where the main character’s fatal flaw is his conscience.

As the new king, Robert Powell is magnificent, stately and regal and also human.  The iambic pentameter of the verse drips off him – It is important to note the cast do not do impressions of their real-life counterparts.  They are personages in a drama, a game of thrones, rather than caricatures – although there are plenty of references to make them recognisable to the people we know and lampoon today.

Penelope Beaumont brings dignity to the role of Camilla, here a kind of advisor and voice of reason, while Jennifer Bryden is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Kate, urging husband William (Ben Righton managing to look dashing in a comfy pullover) to man up and step up.  Charles is pretty damning of the Wills-and-Kate effect, their empty, plastic, tabloid popularity.  Monarchy without meaning is very much the thrust of the drama.

Richard Glaves is fun as hedonistic Harry, slumming it in nightclubs and late-night supermarkets, until the pull of duty and the status quo yanks him back into line.  The play questions the role of monarchy in a supposedly democratic, egalitarian society.  Evans, the somewhat Cromwellian Labour PM, speaks passionately and reasonably (a forceful Tim Treloar) while Stevens, leader of the Tory opposition (an excellent Giles Taylor), behaves exactly as we expect politicians to carry on.  Evans seems almost too principled and too good to be true in comparison!

There is strong support from Lucy Phelps as Jess, Harry’s proletarian girlfriend, and Dominic Jephcott as James Reiss, both on contrasting ends of the social scale.

Directors Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery give the piece the gravitas necessary for us to take the play seriously.  What could have been just an amusing skit and an intriguing conceit becomes a thought-provoking and relevant night at the theatre, powerful, entertaining, enlightening, and ultimately moving.

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate.  (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Yes, Medea

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th November, 2012

Writer and director Mike Bartlett has brought Euripides’s millennia-old play bang up-to-date in this engaging and sometimes startling new version. The setting is a new-build suburb of detached houses in an unspecified British town. Friends and neighbours rally around divorcee Medea on the eve of her ex’s marriage to his dolly bird bride. An acute bout of sniping and low-level bitchery from friend (Amelia Lowdell) and neighbour (Lu Corfield) gives us quite a build-up before the eponymous protagonist herself descends the staircase of the doll’s house set.

Medea is unlike the other women. She is wild of hair and eye, and appears to be on the manic end of a bipolar scale. She exudes bitterness through the medium of sarcasm and we begin to appreciate how deeply the split from her husband has damaged her. That’s the set-up, at least. As the action unfolds, we learn there is more to Medea than a bad case of depression…

The landlord turns up – he’s the dolly bird’s father and he wants Medea out of the house pronto (Christopher Ettridge in a performance that would be at home in a Pinter play) and then the husband (Adam Levy) puts in an appearance, trying to be civil only to be greeted with recriminations (that lead to reminiscences and then to goodbye sex).

It seems that Medea is over the worst. There is a ray of hope with a potential new life in her male neighbour’s Spanish villa. She seems ready to make a clean break and start again…

Except Euripides and the ancient story aren’t going to let that happen. This is the calm before the storm. We may have dispensed with some of the classical theatrical conventions (the chorus, the masks) but Bartlett is wise to demonstrate that some of the old ways are still the most effective. The horror and violence happen off-stage and have to be recounted in dramatic monologues, allowing the audience to create the scenes in their imaginations. Suddenly this middle-class suburban backwater is home to shocking murder, born of vengeance and retribution. We see it in the headlines all too often: divorced parent kills the kids to spite the ex, but the play touches us deeper than this topical relevance. It is about our darkest desires to make those who wrong us pay. We are drawn to Medea because of her humour, her situation and her brittle strength (thanks to an electrifying performance by the marvellous Rachael Stirling). We side with her at first. But as her mind deteriorates we are shown this is not the way to go. The ending, on the rooftop, is cathartic for us as the audience – the tension has been released for us, but Medea is left with the agony of an existential prayer to a god who will not help her.

Ruari Murchison’s design brings to mind A Doll’s House in more ways than one, while remaining faithful to what we know of the way the Greeks presented things, with most of the action taking place in the street in front of the house. Mike Bartlett’s script is snappy and darkly funny. There are interludes of dumb show between scenes (replacing choral odes) underscored with music. We see Medea cooking dinner and plunging her hand into a pot of boiling water; in another, she puts her son to bed and has to return to his room to smash the game console he insists on playing through the night… It’s a stylish and effective way to keep the action flowing and reveal more about Medea’s mental state.

It’s a gripping, entertaining piece that, like Medea’s blade, cuts deep. Older than the hills, it feels entirely contemporary.