Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Mike Bartlett

Interview: Mike Bartlett

Published in The Stage, 17.04.2014

You might call Mike Bartlett the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of British playwrighting. There is standard critical narrative about the 33 year-old’s career: namely, that he went from taut two-handers to sprawling state-of-the-nation plays almost overnight.

Having made his Royal Court debut in 2007 with My Child, a 45-minute burst about absent fathers and the acrimony of matrimony, Bartlett became the go-to guy for compact precision. His early plays were tight and cagey. Characters needled their way into one another’s psyches, exploiting weaknesses and sort spots with laser-guided accuracy. My Child, Contractions, Cock – all of them could have been assembled with tweezers.

Then, apparently out of nowhere, came a series of sprawling Bartlett epics. Earthquakes in London stretched from 1965 to 2525 and asked vast questions about climate change and family trees in a radically-transformed Cottesloe. The following year 13 stormed the Olivier and let a modern-day messiah loose in London to lead a popular protest movement that nearly toppled a coalition government. Between them, he took on a generation – two, really – tracking the baby boomers from university to retirement in Love Love Love, without letting their kids off the hook either.

Bartlett had flipped. The calculating miniaturist has spawned a swingeing monsterist. Politics had bulldozed its way into very personal plays.

“No,” says Bartlett emphatically. “I don’t recognise any of that.”

Reality, he insists, is much less neat. That’s Bartlett through-and-through; he has a knack for prising open pat narratives and unpicking complexities and connective tissue.

“With every writer there are two stories,” he explains, completely ignoring his coffee. “The story of the things that get produced and the story of the things that get written. Somebody ought to write a book about it because the two are strangely unrelated. There are all the things that writers don’t finish and all the plays that don’t find homes. Some plays take three years to write. Some take a day.”

To illustrate the point, he goes right back to My Child, which premiered at the Royal Court’s Young Writers Festival. Actually, he’d submitted three plays for consideration: My Child was “the boiled down little one;” Fear (“or something”) was bog-standard “Royal Court realism set in a school, talking terrorism and education” – “a surefire Royal Court hit, I thought;” and then Iona – since lost to a broken hard drive – was a four-hour magical realist oddity “about Prince William going AWOL to the island of Iona in a kind of Christ in the Wilderness moment, before embarking on his journey into marriage and his royal duties.”

He may dispute the chronology and dismiss all notion of a Damascene conversation, but there’s no denying the two sides to Bartlett’s writing. Indeed, both are on show this month, with two new plays getting their premieres.

King Charles III, which opened at the Almeida last week, ticks the big box. It’s roots lie way back in Iona, since it’s a five-act mock-Shakespearean ‘future-history’ play – in blank verse, no less – that looks ahead to the reign of Prince Charles. The Royal Family are, he says, “a gift to dramatists,” since everything they do necessarily combines the personal and the political, but the Shakespearean format allowed him “a new way of interrogating it that isn’t Peter Morgan and isn’t Spitting Image.”

What’s fascinating about the play is that, while it may seem trite initially, it builds up a huge head of steam. What looked posturing and ironic suddenly cuts to the central tenets on which British society and law happens to be built. Why explore that now? Quite simply, because it will inevitably shift. “The Queen has made the question of influence a moot point. Charles has already done the opposite.”

An Intervention, by contrast, is one of those taut two-handers. It borrows the conventions of front-curtain routines from double acts like Morecambe and Wise. “I knew I wanted to write about friendship, because I haven’t really written about that, and there’s a real history of double acts being really close friends and incorporating an audience in their friendship.” Again, it’s something he’s been toying with for a while. His contribution to Headlong’s Decade – a dialogue between a journalist and Bin Laden’s killer – nodded to Abbott and Costello.

The point is that Bartlett sees form and content as inextricably entwined. “They absolutely come at the same time,” he explains. “For me, form helps a play become a night to remember. Form helps burn a play into your memory. It’s like Friends titles: The One In Which…”

Does that mean there’s something of an iconoclast lurking within Bartlett? No more than any playwright, he parries. “Every writer is trying to find memorable moments, be they very delicate Robert Holman-style moments of intimacy and tenderness or bigger, Enron velociraptors. You just want something audiences will take away.”

It’s as pragmatic a view of playwrighting as you’ll ever hear, but then that’s Bartlett to the core. He has a thoroughly common sense view of theatre and its audiences, and, for all that he treads carefully when talking about the industry, he’s never even slightly in thrall to it.

“Let’s be clear,” he says, ready to deploy his driving mantra, “the audience don’t care about the industry. It’s a bit like if I employ a plumber. I don’t want to get into the politics of plumbing unions. It’s really important and I really believe in it, but I just want the plumbing done. Audiences are the same. When they come to the theatre, they just want a great, interesting, provocative, entertaining night out.

“I’m really proud of the industry I work in,” he continues. “I’m not dismissive of it and I’d defend it a lot. I just think it’s important to remember that this industry is quite small and we do have a tendency to look in. We’ve just got to make sure to look out, because that’s what will get the audiences coming to see our work.”

To that end, Bartlett believes complexity of thought is key. He describes Love Love Love as “the closest I’ve come to writing a single-issue play,” adding that it’s as much about family and marriage as about current generational tensions. The early personal plays had their politics too, while those sprawlers – Earthquakes in London and 13 – “were unafraid of mess. They were responses to an over-dramaturged, overly-critical culture that wanted precise, crystalline plays. They were trying to say there’s a glorious messy carnivalistic aspect to theatre that we shouldn’t forget.” More people approach him about those plays than any other – particularly, he says, younger audience members.

Bartlett believes that political theatre has shifted in line with politics itself. “What I’ve tried to do – and continue to do – is to find ways to write about politics that aren’t based on 1970s ideologies, because we don’t have them any more. We’re living in a political world that exists in the centre.”

Instead of parroting “on-the-nose ideologies,” then, he seeks to zoom-out and zoom-in to macro and micro levels, often embracing contradictions within a single play. “All plays come from three places,” he says: personal experience, political context and imagination. “Often a play goes wrong when it tilts too far towards one of them, but the interesting thing is when you realise that those aren’t three separate areas you move between, but one thing: experience. All personal experience is politicised and all political experience is personal.”

Maybe he’s not such a split-personality, after all.

Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

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