Every play Mike Bartlett writes is powered by the same question: “What is the nature of this event? Because these days,” says the 30-year-old, “it can be anything. You should open the door of the theatre and you should say: what is this?”
That's how audiences of My Child, his 2007 debut at the Royal Court, felt when they entered a scaled-up model of a London Underground train carriage, and witnessed a vicious tug-of-war between a father, his ex-wife and her boyfriend over a heartless nine-year-old boy. Two years later came Cock, an excoriating examination of a gay relationship under stress, staged within a cock-fighting ring. Earthquakes in London, his debut for the National Theatre last year, was more radical still: the entire Cottesloe was gutted and filled by an acid-orange catwalk, across which Bartlett's ambitious story, which dealt with the impact of climate change, snaked from 1965 to 2525.
The scene directions for his new play for the National, 13, indicate that it should be “performed with a circle”. Bartlett's meaning is both literal – the Olivier's stage is round – and metaphorical: the play is a ritual (his word), exploring religious belief and moral structures, and how they inform our decision-making day-to-day. He started writing it in January, as he began a year-long residency at the National, hoping to answer another question: “How do you put a properly contemporary play about late-2011 on the Olivier stage, considering it's normally programmed long in advance?” An extended rehearsal period has allowed him to respond to the news happening around him – including the riots over the summer, which, he says, not only affected his own writing but will colour his audiences' responses. In one scene, he depicts a pensioner smashing a bank window: “When you've watched the riots,” he argues, “that image changes from a moment of outrageous magical realism to being something we saw last week on the telly.”
Not that Bartlett has a problem with putting magic or fantasy on stage. “We have been constrained by social realism, the worry that in order to tackle a subject seriously the form has to be realistic. But our life is full of weirdness and imagination.” Where Earthquakes spiralled into a crystalline future, the plot of 13 is built upon coincidences and bad dreams, finding equal inspiration in the films of David Lynch and the more surreal passages of the Bible.
He takes issue with the suggestion that the National has brought out the old-fashioned state-of-the-nation playwright in him. “That implies my only focus is to dissect the state of us politically and socially. But state of my emotions, or state of my psychology, are as important to me.” He feels more concerned with investigating, at a personal level, “the play between modern morals and traditional morals, and one generation versus another, and lessons of the past, how relevant they are now and whether they still apply”.
Love Love Love, which toured the UK earlier this year, embodied that conflict within a single family – and found both generations equally at fault in their thoughtless dealings with each other. Bartlett doesn't favour one-sided argument in his plays: instead he presents a clash of extremes and the murky areas between them. The last thing he wants is to bolster the cliched idea that “all new writers at the National Theatre are going to be slightly woolly lefties. Increasingly subjects are more complicated than being left and right anyway.”
So he works hard to inhabit opposing points of view – and frequently ends up questioning his own beliefs. “In the process of writing 13, friends were asking if I was OK, because I was saying things about religion, or about intervening in other countries militarily, that I wouldn't normally spout over dinner,” he says. “In the moment of writing the play I genuinely changed what I thought.”
It helps that he's had a lifelong training in assessing how other people think. His father worked as a psychologist, “so I grew up with him saying: 'Look how that person's behaving. Do you think there's a reason behind that?' So as a five-year-old you think: 'Oh, OK, people have brains and they make decisions and their decisions are affected partly by genetics and partly by...'.” Add the instruction of his “very moral” mother, a teacher and the daughter of a minister, and it's not surprising that Bartlett was “a bit right-on” in his university days. He says he's since learned not to take himself so seriously.
Whereas his earlier plays honed their argument with devastating precision, Bartlett's recent plays can feel messy – as reviewers of Earthquakes in London were quick to point out. The play is touring this autumn, and Bartlett took the opportunity to revisit his script. He's tweaked the final act to make it less convoluted: in the original production, one character fell into a coma, woke up in the future then returned to the past to die, resulting, Bartlett accepts, in “too many twists and turns”. But, he says, “I haven't made it shorter, I haven't tidied it up, because the gesture of the play was always 'too much'.” In other words, Earthquakes surveys the excess of our times by being excessive itself – and if it feels flawed as a result, Bartlett doesn't mind. “I don't want it to be the best version of a play,” he reasons. “I want it to be itself, and not to lose its distinctiveness.”
His great goal in the theatre is to achieve a “coherence of gesture”, whereby “the writing fits with the design, which fits with what the actors are doing. The play is just a starting point for collaboration.” He spent his teenage years in Abingdon, near Oxford (he describes it as “an old market town that's very nearly beautiful, only there's always something ruining it”), not writing but directing. At Leeds University, where he took a degree in English literature and theatre studies, he focused on devising, making “all sorts of weird shit theatre”. Is that weird-shit theatre, or weird, shit theatre? “Both, but mainly shit,” says Bartlett cheerfully. “We used lots of puppets and gauze and paint and the Smiths.” What it gave him, he says, was an invaluable knowledge not only of how a stage works, but of the possibilities of theatre – possibilities he continues to explore and expand today.
After graduating in 2002, he attempted to make his way as a director, but came unstuck while interviewing to join new writing companies including Out of Joint and Paines Plough. “You have to come in with a huge amount of charisma, which I didn't have,” he says. (It's a fair point: Bartlett is smart, forthright and friendly, but not exactly suave.) So he transferred his energy to writing – and with his first proper play, Not Talking, the same new writing companies suddenly found him an exciting prospect. The Royal Court invited him to join its young writer's programme, by the end of which Bartlett had three new pieces: a “social-realistic play about a kid in a school doing terrorist acts”, and “a magical-realist fantasy set on the island of Iona featuring Prince William”, both of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, were rejected by the theatre. The last, My Child, was staged – and Bartlett hasn't looked back.
He worries about being seen to be climbing a ladder: from the Royal Court's studio space to its main house, up to the Cottesloe and now the big one, the Olivier. “I'm not interested in that, and I don't want to feel like that's how it works,” he says. “I don't care more about 13 because it's in the Olivier than I did with Cock in a 100-seat studio. They both matter because it's still a person sat there watching your play. And the play has to be good enough, because there are a hundred other plays and writers out there who deserve to have their play on instead.”