On the opening page of Earthquakes in London, Mike Bartlett’s new play for the National Theatre, there is an instruction to directors. “The play is about excess,” it reads. “And we should feel that.”
To anyone familiar with Bartlett’s work, this will come as a surprise. He made his mark with My Child, a 40-minute splinter of a play about divorce, and secured his reputation with Cock, a superb drama about a love triangle. Both were pared down, needle-like, brilliant in their concision.
The new work, by contrast, revels in excess. It wields around 80 characters (it’s hard to be precise, since some come in bundles of “many”), has five acts, takes as much as three hours to perform, zips about in time from 1968 to 2525, demands “as much set, props and costumes as possible” and “should always seem at risk of descending into chaos”. Why the change?
“With big, epic subjects, you need a whole evening to think about them,” says Bartlett. “There is so much more we could talk about. There are loads of deleted scenes and characters that fell away. It may run at three hours but it could have run at six.”
The subject is climate change, which is certainly not an issue likely to be contained in a 40-minute drama. As Bartlett hints, even a three-hour play is bound to offer only the tip of an iceberg – or at least an iceberg as it used to be. But the play’s scale is not to do with cramming in facts: the style matches the subject.
“It’s a play about excess, irresponsibility, mess, pollution and leakage,” says Bartlett. “And I think the play does all of those things – whereas the plays I’ve written before have been quite tidy and coherent. The question is: how do you cram everything in, how do you create mess on stage, and still make sure the audience understands and enjoys the play?”
The challenge for him, then, has been to create a sense of chaos without actually losing the plot. He harnesses the drama to a family crisis, tracking three sisters very closely through the piece.
He has thought carefully about the contrasting rhythms of dramatic structures: the two-act play (“very binary: you throw things up and then they come back down”); the three-act (“thesis, antithesis, synthesis”); and the five-act (“it’s about each act having a feel in itself as well as being connected to the whole”).
After years of concise studio pieces, the epic play has staged a bit of a comeback recently (Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and David Greig’s Dunsinane are just two examples). Bartlett’s new play is a co-production with Headlong, a company that, under its dynamic director Rupert Goold, encourages writers to think big.
“I’ve had brilliant nights in the theatre that have been very long,” Bartlett observes. “You make an investment as an audience. That’s a good thing and you can’t do that in 90 minutes.”
He suggests that that shared sense of engagement can prove significant with a serious subject such as climate change. “I actually think plays can do a lot,” he says. “I’ve grown a bit sick of people saying. ‘Oh, theatre’s pointless and no one sees it.’ There are landmark plays which do push things forward, because when people are locked in a room and have a collective experience to remember, it can change their lives in a way that other forms of storytelling are less likely to.”
He adds that drama’s capacity to show several perspectives at once suits such a complex subject: “It’s very difficult to find objective truth about climate change. Everyone has a reason to emphasise one thing or the other. Either it’s a huge catastrophe and it’s really going to hit within a hundred years. Or we’re fine. It could be either way.
“So what do I do? Do I live my life and try to forget about it? Do I recycle, even though some people such as James Lovelock say, ‘Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time’? Or do I go the whole way and just live in a hut in the countryside and desperately try and keep my head down? I don’t know. If you’re trying to write a play, that’s where it gets interesting.”
Lovelock, the scientist who proposed the Gaia theory, has made some sobering predictions about climate change over recent years. He is, in part, the inspiration for one character in the play, a maverick scientist who reckons it’s too late to turn back.
“They’re very different people,” Bartlett cautions. “But the one thing that did inspire that character was Lovelock in interviews saying, ‘It’s too late, there’s nothing you can do. It’s like the Weimar Republic – just have a good time.’ And you realise you never usually see that in interviews: you never see anyone saying, ‘There is no hope.’ For me that was a really great starting point for a character.”
We are sitting on a balcony outside the National Theatre. The 21st-century way of life bustles beneath us. Cars stream over Waterloo Bridge; aircraft streak across the sky. Yet here is Bartlett calmly discussing doomsday. Does he not worry that his play will plunge audiences into despair?
“Yeah, absolutely,” he says, genially. “And I don’t think there’s any point in just depressing your audience for three hours. I hope that what we’ve done is say, ‘If this is the Weimar Republic, let’s have lots of smoking, drinking and dancing in the play. Let’s make it funny and make it a show.’ In the same way as Cabaret the musical does. You come out of Cabaret having had a brilliant evening but realising that this was the turning point. And I think that’s the trick. But, also, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the play.”
Bartlett is a quiet, very courteous and friendly individual. Yet in his work he seems to head straight for thorny territory. The title alone of Cock left every critic tiptoeing nervously around puns and the subject matter – a gay man who suddenly falls in love with a woman – had audiences speculating fiercely about Bartlett’s own sexuality.
“People asked, ‘Are you straight or gay?’ And my response was, ‘Well, how does that have any bearing?’ What I didn’t want it to be was a play written by a straight writer about sexuality or by a gay writer about sexuality.”
Perhaps even more unsettling than the play’s psychosexual terrain was its merciless accuracy about the way people quarrel. Bartlett has a disturbingly acute ear for the way people argue. Does he bicker a lot himself?
“I can’t remember the last time I had an argument,” he says, laughing. “I think it’s good therapy to get it out in my plays.”
His plays often join characters at a point of crisis, when they are cornered and have to react. And in a sense, you could say that the new play considers that predicament on a grand scale.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of drama where characters are cornered and they crumble and collapse,” Bartlett explains.
“But that’s not what I see in life. When people are cornered, they fight back and they reveal themselves through that struggle. It’s when we’re at our most rhetorical and brilliant. If there’s an argument on the street, I’ll definitely stop and listen.”
You have been warned.
‘Earthquakes in London’ previews from July 29 and opens on August 4 at the National Theatre, London. Tel: +44 (0)20 7452 3000, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk