Earthquakes in London @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Gary Carr, Bill Paterson, Anna Lacey, Tom Godwin, Tom Goodman-Hill, Anna Madeley, Jessica Raine, Bryony Hannah, Lia Williams, Geoffrey Streatfield

directed by
Rupert Goold
The Cottesloes 1960s studio design by Iain Mackintosh has a modest sense of efficacy, like demure mechano, it exhibits all the utility of modern theatre erasing all the pomp and fuss of its traditional forbears.

Add to this the largesse of National Theatre budgets and theres no wonder it remains a national mecca for playwrights seeking to experiment with form and format.

A natural home, then, for Mike Barletts new play, directed by Rupert Goold, which promises young, innovative, high-concept theatre from a clutch of rising stars, and in many respects it doesnt disappoint; dropping like an apocalyptic cabaret bomb, spraying fashion, fatalism and environmental futurism, where ingenious staging meets a surfeit of spectacle..
Fresh from staging the pulses of financial market data in Enron, Goold and set designer Miriam Buether concoct a vivid fabric upon which the play unfolds. Twin chambered stages at either end, beautifully lit and dressed, exchange scenes. Projections wall the theatre, of geographies, uncanny cities, lonely streets, which at the same time as inspiring a strange alienating effect, string together the parade of action that explodes, beautifully choreographed, across the promenade stage that cuts through the audience in the pit, twisting and turning, constituting something like the fourth wall of China.

Across this platform wind stories of travelling dislocated people, broken relationships, narrow oases of mutual comfort, a through-the-looking-glass mystery tour, replete with singing mothers and dance routines in prams. Young neon-clad ravers leap across it, post-tween gentlemen slump drunkenly to indie anthems clinging to their youth, a chorus emerge from a hatch, a young girl strides and strips while holding placards decrying environmental catastrophe.

However what the play delivers to the senses, it cant quite deliver to the head. The environmental tropes suffer from constant oversimplification. Stock positions are carved out, the lines of debate are fudged, lines such as bad things are happening. Lets stick our heads in the sand simply serve to thin the message. For a play that professes political urgency, Tom, played capably by Gary Carr, is a slight cipher for the younger generations anger at the mismanagement of the world, a coarse mixture of paper thin piousness and sledge-hammer anger. Bill Paterson is toweringly patriarchal as Robert, an amped up version of the theorist James Lovelock, whose intellectual worldview is oversimplified, then spuriously cast aside on the basis that he is an emotionally cold misanthropist. The attempt to locate the subjectivities that produce the arguments, ends up debasing both through its clumsiness. While the play has the courage of its convictions, it errs on the side of foolhardy.

Much better were the portraits of fatalism and 21st century decadence. The sheer forthright presence of Jessica Raine as Jasmine, all selfishness and self-destruction, managed to keep pace with the plays energy and force, and her desperate tryst with Tom Goodman-Hill as Colin a compelling picture of grubby quietist hedonism. The use of the Liberal Democrat minister is particularly astute, lending a sense of a politics beyond beyond ideology in which the final death throes of principle are teased out for their apocalyptic content. Bryony Hannah creates a cross between Michael Hanekes Funny Games and Nic Roeg’s Dont Look Now as the brilliant comical, disarming yet supernaturally threatening young badman Peter.

By the final scenes of this overlong play, even the brilliance of the staging is flagging. But if this is a triumph of young theatre then it is with astuteness of feeling that it evokes a contemporary condition, and the blend of contemporary references it employs. Apocalyptic road movies, the grotesque wonderment of Tim Burton or Guillermo Del Toro, mix with big musical theatre, the epicness and political tragedy of Brecht. A central touchtone is the fin de sicle air of anomie of Atom Egoyans 90s films, all sterile distancing, skillful stultification, apocalypse in the detail. The visual language is filmic, cuts like edits, rapid-fire bursts. It conspires to create a very exciting sense of a future for modern drama, a sensory and spectacular advance. If film has gone 3D, this is the kind of theatre that does the same, but more so.

Prior to curtains, the red and blue lighting, and slightly menacing jazz bass, evoked some far flung bar from the corner of a David Lynch film. The snaking stage became the bar top, a sumptuous Weimar-as-80s-luxury feel, and as the audience in the pit place their drinks on its surface we feel implicated – out for a good time, to escape, fiddling with our plush bar stools while the world burns. And yet an explanation of why exactly we shouldn’t be seeking a comfortable position, from which to revel in the sparkling visual riches on offer, was never really offered.

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