Review: Earthquakes in London, Richmond Theatre
The planet is, according to Mike Bartlett, having its Weimar moment. The enemy of climate change is fast approaching, but instead of doing something about it we are partying at the cabaret. ‘Bad things are happening,’ as one hedonistic young character baldly states, ‘let’s bury our heads in the sand’. In this ambitious, sprawling epic, Bartlett is attempting to wrench us firmly out of the sandpits that we have all contentedly dug ourselves into, shaking us to our senses.
For Bartlett, master of the miniature, the leap to Earthquakes in London is the equivalent of a boxer going straight from lightweight to heavyweight. A self-described epic that spans from the 1960s to 2525, this searing indictment of the sorry state of our planet also throws a few punches at capitalism, the coalition government and the dubious legacy of the baby boomers, a familiar Bartlett theme that was explored in Love, Love, Love. Bartlett certainly inflicts some devastating blows in a painfully compelling piece of drama, but he still needs to pile on a few pounds of theatrical weight to achieve a true knockout.
This sweeping drama wisely takes as its focal point a family in crisis. Climate change scientist Robert, a corporate sell-out turned prophet of doom, has not spoken to his daughters in twenty years, favouring his work over his family. His eldest daughter Sarah, a perfectly poised and icy Tracy-Ann Oberman, is now a Lib-Dem environmental minister who is about to make an important decision about UK airport expansion. The off-the-rails baby of the family Jasmine – a captivatingly self-destructive Lucy Phelps in a startling professional debut – is intent on having a good time, while pregnant and troubled middle daughter Freya worries about bringing a child into a world on its way to oblivion.
Bartlett established himself as a miniaturist and this remains essentially a string of carefully observed, small-scale scenes between individuals. The skill, however, is in how these scenes are strung together, bleeding into one another as they contribute to a building dramatic picture. The three daughters are inevitably recognisable ‘types’ that relate to a wider human context, but Bartlett’s gentle handling ensures that they also emerge as characters in their own right. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for the cold Robert, played with sardonic flair by Paul Shelley. His odd lack of feeling for his daughters poses the question of why we should strive to save humanity if this is the way in which humans treat one another.
As scenes collide and are knitted together by beautifully surreal song and dance sequences, the influence of Brecht’s epic theatre is heavily felt, though these Brechtian techniques raise concerns in Bartlett’s piece. While alienating the audience allows space for thought, Bartlett runs the risk of making his devastating truths become unreal, of the fantastical elements of his drama turning this urgent call for action into a fantasy that can be blithely dismissed.
This has no doubt been exacerbated by the shift from the malleable space of the Cottesloe to the traditional proscenium arch. Despite the best efforts of tour director Caroline Steinbeis to translate Rupert Goold’s original production to this dramatically different staging, Bartlett’s intentions and Miriam Buether’s design feel at odds with the traditional stage on which they sit. Whereas the audience at the National Theatre were planted in the middle of the action, unable to escape, the distance between stage and spectators at the Richmond Theatre removes this immediacy and allows audience members to erect a psychological barrier.
Earthquakes in London’s reach is impressive, but it has outstretched Bartlett’s grasp as a playwright. While the dazzling first half has the power to shake to the core, the tremors grow fainter as this epic seems to lose its way at the conclusion. In the final sequence there is an irreconcilable conflict between heart-breaking and beautifully acted portraits of family drama and abstract strands of metaphor that never resolve themselves into anything solid. Ambitious, thought-provoking and relentlessly gripping as Bartlett’s play may be, it departs with a yearning sense of immense potential not quite fulfilled.
Image: Tristram Kenton