“Earthquakes in London”at the National Theatre

Of the several excellent productions this summer from the Headlong Theatre Company, none has created quite the buzz of Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.

Headlong’s star director Rupert Goold takes charge. While Broadway gave his production of Enron a drubbing, London loves Goold – and rightly so. A director of great style, his bag of theatrical tricks belies a precise hand adept at delivering unforgettable shows. Goold brings all his invention and courage to Earthquakes in London. He has to – Mike Bartlett’s play could easily have seemed unstageable.

Creating a time-travelling story of environmental apocalypse, Bartlett flirts with the past and future, but his play is really about the present – a condemning vision of our apathy and arrogance. Unashamedly political, if occasionally obtuse, the passion displayed is admirable. Akin to the National’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, the question that frustrates and angers is how society can carry on the party in the face of catastrophe.

Bartlett’s uncanny gift for characterisation shows his skill as a writer. While the wry observations on modern life are sometimes predictable, they can seldom be argued with and if the scope of his ambition doesn’t always pay off, his emotional insight creates a recognisable world of believable people.

Lia Williams is brilliant as Sarah, a newly appointed Lib Dem minister struggling with the conflict between her ideals and power. Lia has brought up her sisters: Jasmine (Jessica Raine) has ended up as a “natural disaster”, angry as only a post baby boomer can be, while heavily pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley) is given a haunting depiction that matches this harrowing role.

A massive cast live their lives around these women. Even their husbands, both men in crisis and played wonderfully by Tom Goodman-Hill and Geoffrey Streatfield fail to connect with them. Their father Robert (Bill Patterson) is a prophet whose vision of the future removes him from his family and provides this bleak play’s most exigent moments. Always surprising, Earthquakes in London is an epic with the most unusual hero as Bryony Hannah excels in two roles that show her enviable versatility.

But the stars of the show are designer Miriam Buether and the technical team at the National Theatre. Transforming the Cottesloe to an unprecedented extent makes the night exciting from the start. Performing amongst the crowd and in two pillbox stages at either end allows the breakneck speed required. It provides memorable tableaux and builds up connections that add further to an already rich work. The evening is often overwhelming, but it is never confusing. This is compulsive viewing that will run amok in the mind for a long time to come.

Until 22 September 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine

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