Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London has received a lot of attention recently, and not all of it positive. A writer best known for intimate, small-scale pieces such as Cock and My Child, Bartlett has here produced something so messy and complicated that it almost overflows the space of the Cottesloe. – but it’s a glorious mess. It follows the story of Robert, an environmental scientist, and the effect of his extremist views on his daughters Freya, Sarah and Jasmine, from whom he is estranged.
For my money, it would be hard to find a more ‘complete’ experience anywhere in the theatre today. From the wonderful abundance of the first half to the brain-churning drain of the second, I doubt that Earthquakes is going to leave me alone for a long time. Although this is a very different play to Cock, it still retains its emotional hounding, and the feeling that we are all lost children. This is also what makes the political aspects of Earthquakes so potent; unlike the hopelessly dry The Power of Yes (at the Lyttelton a few months ago), Barlett makes the political personal and thus both relevant and compelling.
Earthquakes is ground-breaking in so many ways that it’s hard to describe them all. The S-shaped stage, the positioning of the audience and the projections make it all-engrossing and all-encompassing. For once I was glad to have a standing ticket; on a permanent pivot, you don’t notice the lack of seat, and feel much more part of the action. With the audience and acting areas one and the same, not only are you in very close proximity to the actors, you’re also lit as though you are one. Apart from anything else, this allows you to watch the faces of other audience members, which is a rare thrill in itself.
Several critics have raised their skeptical eyebrows about the effectiveness of the size and scope of this play, but I found something delightful in what they hated. I think the play is very much aware of its own contradictions and, as such, demonstrates how difficult (if not impossible) it is not to want to live life at an accelerated pace. The sensual feast of the first half is inescapably entertaining, and Bartlett simultaneously endorses and condemns the enjoyment we derive from it.
I would agree, in part, with those critics who have suggested that the play goes on too long. The ending could have been weightier if the play had been left at its real dramatic climax – when Freya is on the edge of Waterloo Bridge. Neither was I convinced by the futuristic elements of the play: the whole experience is surreal enough without turning needing to turn fully sci-fi. In all honesty though, I didn’t mind the awkward coda or the out of body experiences – I wanted as much of Barlett’s writing as he could give.
I’ve been additionally impressed by the National’s Entry Pass scheme and generally affordable ticket prices. I managed to get two standing tickets for After the Dance, two Entry Pass tickets for Earthquakes and a ticket to the Earthquakes Platform for £20. What more could you want?