Why 13 is the lucky number as Mike Bartlett play premieres in Wales

Last autumn, I first worked with the Third Year Acting students of Gorseinon, Gower College Swansea on their drama school audition monologues. In front of me were extraordinarily talented young actors. They are the next generation of exceptional Welsh theatre actors, all from towns and villages in South and West Wales. 

In November of last year, the students came to see my production of Parallel Lines by Katherine Chandler in Chapter. They loved the play and were enthused by the idea of acting in something similar, a play that is modern and relevant to them. It was then that the College asked me to direct a contemporary production with the students to build on our previous work and give the students a professional production experience.

So I wanted to choose something that would be exciting for them as young actors, that would help them develop their skills, question the world and their place in it, and be relevant for contemporary audiences in South Wales.  

The play

13 by Mike Bartlett was originally performed at the National Theatre in London back in 2011, in the wake of the London riots.

The play shows a Britain on the brink of a potential invasion of Iran to put a stop to their nuclear programme. While crowds and rioting build in Trafalgar Square, the Prime Minister must make a decision about what must be done.

I chose 13 as it’s a big ambitious play, that attempts to touch on all of the major contemporary political issues of modern Britain. Left vs right, a newly “compassionate” de-toxed conservative party, the rise of Dawkins-led fundamentalist atheism, the Arab spring, foreign intervention, social unrest, the rise of social media. The list goes on. It’s this scope that attracted me to the play.

It’s also this wide scope that makes it a hard play to pull off, not least because it requires a huge cast. 

As a theatre director in Wales you don’t get the opportunity to direct a large scale cast production - namely because of how expensive that production would have been to cast. If you have 20 actors on stage, paying the actors alone would cost £8,000 a week at actor’s Equity minimum pay rate.

It’s also really exciting to direct something that feels very relevant to today. Even though the play was written in 2011, there is so much still going on in the world that hasn’t changed.

The current Israeli offensive in Gaza, the ongoing Syrian civil war, ISIS, the shooting down of MH17 - strangely, there are resonances with all these things in the play. 

Working with the students

The students are 19 and 20 years old, and as such, have never voted in a general election. So I wanted to produce something that would make them think about what what they believe in, to realise that what they do, and their individual action, has an effect on the entire country. It’s been a privilege to help the students come to terms with the world around them, our political system, and watch them juggle all the ideas that are brought up in the play.

Each student plays a character that is a long way from their own experience: a 60-year old academic with cancer; a smooth-talking, coke-addled lawyer; a modern day prophet - so picking up these characters was really going to stretch them as young actors.

Together, we also created huge dramatic scenes of rioting, protest and nuclear explosion. Now, when you come and see 13, it’s like you’re seeing the whole of London on one Cardiff stage. 

Working with students is different to working with professional actors -  but they are also full of boundless energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

It can be challenging because they don’t have the training, skill set or language that professional actors will come with. As a director, you have to find a new way of communicating. But the exciting thing is that they come without any preconceived ideas; they are open to suggestions and playing, which sometimes can be lost through professional training and life experience. We’re on a war against cynicism and young people arrive optimistic and without scepticism.

13 gives these young actors the opportunity to springboard into an acting career as independent, exciting theatre-makers. They are all interesting youngsters with diverse backgrounds. When these people come through into the arts industry, they make the acting profession more interesting. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.


Ultimately, I’m very proud of the production and incredibly proud of the cast. Since I met them a year ago, they’ve come on leaps and bounds. I believe the performances are as accomplished as professional actors and the production exceeds what people might imagine when they hear the phrase “student theatre”. I feel privileged to have worked with these bright, sensitive, creative actors and I look forward to working with them again in years to come.

The students of the Third Year Acting company are:

Aled Evans, Anna Williams, Carys Bowkett, Dan Gibbon, Douglas Grey, Emma Cleeve, Hanna Kenfick, Holly Carpenter, Luke Evans, Mared Williams, Owain Gunn, Sean Jones, Shaun Llewellyn, Simon Morgan, Taylor Andrews.

(This article first appeared in the Western Mail, South Wales Echo and WalesOnline on Thursday 24 July 2014)

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