Lacerating Simplicity: The Neorealist Work of Mike Bartlett

“When I was young I used to watch a lot of television,” says Mike Bartlett, describing his authorial origins. “It was always the fiction that I loved the most, everything from sitcom to serious drama. And I think even as a child I knew that someone had sat down and written it.”

Born and raised in Abington, just outside of Oxford, Bartlett first became interested in theatre when he attended the Abington School for Boys. Bartlett acted and directed extracurricularly, but received a shock to his artistic system when he saw Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking at the age of 16. “That was the first time I’d seen a play by a writer who wasn’t dead, or wasn’t much older,” Bartlett reflects. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t understand why all plays aren’t like this. Why are so many plays set in the past?’”

This seed of disquiet flowered when Bartlett attended the University of Leeds in 1999. Intending to study directing, Bartlett became frustrated with canonical theatre’s datedness. He turned to playwriting and began experimenting with blending modernity with tradition, television with theatre. It felt like theatre was often ignoring the fact that most of its audience go home each night and watch television,” explains Bartlett. “[But] TV shows know how quickly you absorb information, and they don’t wait around. You don’t have time to be bored because you’re working so hard to construct what’s going on and to understand everything.”

After graduating, Bartlett played out his experiments with the Apathists, a playwrights’ group comprised of Bartlett and five of his friends, including Lungs (Studio, 2012) author Duncan Macmillan. The group met monthly to workshop and produce each other’s short plays. “The whole point was that we were allowed to fail,” says Bartlett. “We tried different things, and a good 50 percent of it was rubbish. But another amount of it was quite interesting and certainly that led to us discovering those voices.” Their “slightly anarchic” work was met with mixed reactions: Bartlett recalls finding “a full pint glass of vomit after the show, which we find amusing because it meant somebody had been sick really discreetly, perfectly and then just left it there. I suppose that was the worst review one of us would ever have.”

The reviews changed when Bartlett’s plays hit the professional stage. In 2007, My Child—a searing drama about a father violently asserting his paternal rights during a custody battle—premiered at the Royal Court Theatre and gave his experiments physical reality. Says Bartlett of the play, “I thought, why don’t I write a play which engages with that language of television, tries doing more with it, and use all the things that theatre can do that television can’t?” My Child was met with critical acclaim and kicked off a three-year streak at the Court for Bartlett, whose corporate satire Contractions (2008; Studio, 2013) and Olivier Award-winning Cock (2009; Studio, 2014 and 2021) also found a home there. These taut, sparse plays garnered Bartlett a reputation for writing “miniaturist” examinations of contemporary British society. Reviewing My Child, critic Michael Coveny wrote, “What I like about Bartlett’s play is its simplicity and starkness, its realization that to make good theatre you can pare right down to basics and raw emotions, and honest dissections of relationships, like you can lacerate them.”

His subsequent plays turned that “miniaturist” label on its head. Earthquakes in London, a sprawling, chaotic play following one family through 500 years and total climate collapse, opened at the National Theatre in 2010. Although some felt that the play’s reach extended its grasp, Bartlett’s audacious modernity sparked critical excitement, which tracked through 2011’s 13—a “phantasmagorical fable” about a country poised on the brink of war—and 2012’s Love, Love, Love—a scathing comedy following two Baby Boomers over 40 years. In each play, Bartlett adapts television techniques to theatrical convention: dialogue zips along in vernacular, while scenes dart from location to location. James Grieve, who directed Love, Love, Love, believes that Bartlett has “led the way in the last few years in terms of formal invention. He’s throwing down the gauntlet to a lot of the playwrights in this country in terms of the way you tell stories.”  

King Charles III (2014) is a contemporary history play in the Shakespearean vein, complete with iambic pentameter, which imagines the ascension of the then-Prince Charles to the throne. Its premiere production at the Almeida Theatre transferred to the West End and then Broadway; the production won an Olivier and a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play, and the Broadway production was nominated for a Tony for Best Play. At the same time, Bartlett was diving into the many story-making opportunities of television. The first television project he created, The Town (2012), was a three-part thriller; The Telegraph’s Frances Wilson called it “reality TV, as imagined by David Lynch.” His next project, Doctor Foster (2016, 2018) was a contemporary take on the Medea story about a woman who suspects her husband is having an affair. In the Guardian, Lucy Mangan called it a “gripping portrait of a marriage being slowly poisoned,” and Doctor Foster won the National Television Award Best Drama in 2016 and 2018.

His two most recent projects showcase his continued interest in torquing form to create new genres. The 47th (2022), which premiered at the Old Vic, returns to Shakespearean form to reveal a succession drama in a radically different key from King Charles III. Where King Charles III focused on the ascension of a King in long waiting, The 47th uses blank verse to follow a Trump / Biden rematch in the 2024 election. “Trump, as a sort of seductive, show-biz, bitter, iconic figure, is…quite Shakespearean—quite Richard III,” Bartlett said of the project. In another vein, Bartlett’s most recent play, Scandaltown (2022), which ran at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, is a contemporary take on restoration comedy—an acid cream puff of plot twists and political hypocrisies, angled at an inept conservative Tory government and an impotent liberal media machine.

This hunger for the political through the personal is an abiding interest of Bartlett’s across forms. “One of the things that I love theatre doing,” says Bartlett, “is that you see the world as it is before you go in…and when you come out the world looks a little bit different.” Bartlett’s plays in particular reflect that world-shaping capability, posing questions about sexuality, globalization, capitalism, climate change—but always playing out those questions’ ambiguity. “I think that plays, in order to be political, need to…strive to get people to think about the systems that are behind our life. And you don’t do that by showing the system. You do it by showing the problem and then encouraging the audience to work back themselves.”

Erin Washburn and Adrien-Alice Hansel