Review - 13 by Mike Bartlett - Thought-provoking despite some pointless elements

Updated: Jul 15

Rated 🍯🍯🍯

Cast of the play 13 bow after their performance at the ArtsEd theatre
Cast of the play 13 bow after their performance at the ArtsEd theatre

Say we are in the early twentieth century, and you spot a ten-year old Hitler playing in your yard. You have the gift of knowing exactly what this child will grow up to do - that he will unleash the Holocaust that will kill millions of Jews, that he will lead the world into the Second World War, that he will push, further than anyone has ever done before, the limits of humanity’s potential for cruelty, callousness and abuse of power. You can kill this child right now if you wish. Would you do it?

To strip away other moral considerations and get to the heart of this thought experiment, assume further that you cannot change this man’s life trajectory - you cannot, for example, influence his upbringing so that he grows up to be less radical. You cannot relegate the decision of whether to exterminate him to anyone else, or to a democratic vote, because you and you alone know what he will do, and you alone have this take-it-or-leave-it chance, only this once, to alter the world’s trajectory. If you don’t act, then the world will plod along its original trajectory; the horrors of the future will come. Also, you don’t have to worry about being persecuted for the murder of an innocent child and spending your life in jail - you have perfect immunity both from legal and social ramifications. Would you save the world from Hitler if you had the chance?

Perhaps the decision is easy if you knew with absolute certainty what the future holds if this child is allowed to live. Nipping the Holocaust in the bud to spare the lives of millions of innocent people seems like an easy enough choice.

What if it wasn't a certainty that the child would become Hitler? What if there was a 99 percent chance this child would grow up to be Hitler as we know him, but there is also a 1 percent chance that he would turn out to be just an ordinary civilian? If you, like me, feel that a 99 percent chance of an apocalyptic disaster is still a significant enough risk and it is okay to sacrifice this child to avert it, then answer me this - how would you feel if the probability were only 80 percent? 50 percent? 20 percent?

In other words, how much of a likelihood of disaster is “high enough” that acting to stop it is a good thing? How low does it have to be for acting to stop it to suddenly be a bad thing? What if we couldn’t put a number on this likelihood at all?

The moral conflict of Mike Bartlett’s play 13 (in the way that the bee interpreted it at least) is whether collateral damage is ethically acceptable - even justifiable - in an endeavour to avert (the potential for) a much larger disaster. The lonely Tory Prime Minister of Britain, still grieving her son’s (accidental) suicide, contemplates whether to join the US to declare open war on Iran because of the (perceived) threat that the state has both nuclear weapons of mass destruction and a systematic plan to deploy them in terrorist endeavours.

The catch is that we don’t know for sure that these weapons even exist. Does the fact that there is a positive probability that they do exist, and that if they do, the world is staring down the barrel of a nuclear Holocaust, justify the collateral damage that would accompany an all-out invasion and war?

Spoilers ahead - warning.

The dilemma facing the Prime Minister is mirrored in a similar dilemma facing Sarah, the mother of a very precocious child, Ruby. Detesting Ruby's lack of empathy and disdain for those less clever than her, Sarah convinces herself that she sees in her daughter the potential for someone as tyrannical and egregious as Hitler. Convincing herself that she is doing humanity a great service, Sarah murders Ruby, thus showing us the contrarian view of how one might go wrong with 'nipping things in the bud' when one's beliefs about that bud are misguided. What if we are similarly misguided about what Iran would, or would not, do? Even if we knew with tremendous conviction that Iran is up to no good (just as Sarah knew - or thought she knew - beyond any reasonable doubt that her daughter would unleash horrors upon the world), is it really up to us to reset the trajectory of the world?

The play made it clear that Sarah was jealous of her daughter Ruby, who constantly spurned and snubbed her mother for not being as intelligent as herself. It is easy to say that Sarah's motive was just plain green jealousy, and her grandiose vision that she was carrying out God's work by exterminating a threat to humanity was probably just her coping mechanism to live under her skin after committing such a heinous act. Nevertheless, that grandiose vision does require some consideration because it is a striking example of the kind of stories we tell ourselves to justify certain actions. Just like the stories the US and UK governments were telling themselves about Iran to justify war.

Bartlett skilfully introduces multiple perspectives on the decision about war. There is the atheistic and cynical academic, Stephanie, who believes in proactive intervention because even though the chance of an apocalypse is minuscule, the damage it would cause if it occurs is too high for humanity to bear, and so the collateral damage the intervention causes is a bitter but necessary price that must be paid - a small sacrifice for the peace of mind that nothing worse will happen.

There is the eccentric John (who, to the bee’s incredulousness, rises to national fame by simply standing on a bucket and muttering superficial platitudes to gullible bystanders - more on this later) who believes that just the mere chance of the existence of weapons isn’t enough to warrant war on Iran, and that war is anyway never the solution to terrorism. Whether you see his argument as tenuous or watertight depends on the potential for and feasibility of diplomatic engagement with Iran - if you subtract what we know from real life about this, the play itself does not give us much information on the alternatives available to the Prime Minister at the time (nothing on diplomatic relations, nothing on the possibility of sanctions, nothing on the position of multilateral organisations, nothing on an Opposition party or Parliament and their views on this matter), making it difficult to see John’s arguments in perspective. The bee is tempted to dismiss John’s argument as uninformed populist rhetoric backed by sentiment, not a systematic analysis of the available alternatives.

Then there is Rachel and Amir, stuck in an exhausting and pointless relationship. Rachel is fidgety and anxious, constantly looking for a larger cause to believe in so that she can enrich her life with ideology and purpose if not with her doomed relationship with Amir and her failed career. And there’s Amir, unemployed, bored and restive. They both get on board John’s agenda not really because they’ve given careful thought to the various alternative strategies available to the government and want to actively participate in politics as intelligent civilian contributors, but because they want to be part of something bigger than their own empty lives. Forgive the bee’s cynicism, but that’s how they came across to the bee. They are the exemplar of the kind of people Stephanie warned against when she said people shouldn’t be left to make decisions in the national interest - people should merely elect representatives who can be trusted to do the painstaking research and evaluation of alternatives necessary to make such decisions.

That is not to say that the masses shouldn’t be listened to. They must, and the Prime Minister makes the right decision in hearing out John. The unfortunate thing is that the play fails to show us any credible individuals in the masses who are able to argue on merit rather than sentiment and rhetoric. There are only frustrated, gullible youth - the cleaning girl who hates her job, the nervous and jumpy boy crippled by social anxiety, the forever fretful Rachel, the unemployed Amir prone to belligerence out of sheer boredom, the tottering Holly living off allowances from her Alzheimer’s ridden grandmother and the odd sex job - these are people who are uncomfortable with the economic and political order, and deserve better for sure, but not the kind from whom you could expect clear, rational arguments in favour of or against war. To a politician, they are people to be sympathised with, and whose welfare should be a priority, but who in matters of political and diplomatic strategy are a mere nuisance of clamouring voices. The bee faults the play with not putting forth a credible voice in the masses who could demonstrate the importance of civilian engagement.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the bee was able to strike a chord with Stephanie’s argument in favour of a meritocracy. Now, naturally, highly educated experts in power have made blunders too. But that does not refute the bee's argument that experts are better equipped to make those decisions than laymen. The real question is whether, if that blunderous decision had been deferred to the masses, a smarter decision could have been made - we need the counterfactual to decide. To refute Stephanie, for every example of smart people making dumb decisions, one needs to show that the masses, if deciding collectively, would have made a smarter decision.

Stage of theatre play 13 by Mike Bartlett at the ArtsEd theatre
Set of 13 by Mike Bartlett at the ArtsEd theatre

Further, what exactly is the point of the dream that everyone has? Explosions and monsters…they portend the ominous times ahead, but to what end? The bee could have done without those scenes with everyone tossing and turning in their sleep. It just made the bee listless without adding anything whatsoever to the plot.

In all, the play was thought-provoking and the performance was successful in eliciting from the audience the same restive discomfort that was mirrored on the stage, immersing the audience fully into the heart of the issues being considered. However, it lacked realism - why is the Prime Minister the lone decision-maker? Where is the Parliament, the opposition, other political leaders? How is John - a nobody - able to get Amir released from police custody? Why do people keep having the same bad dream and how does that contribute to the plot in any way? Why is the play called 13?

Three stars.

Watched 16 June 2022 at ArtsEd.

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