The Heretic is Environmental Theatre that Makes You Think Twice

royal court photo

Photo: Royal Court

At last, a play about the environment that isn't preaching to the converted and is bringing in the crowds. The Heretic at London's Royal Court Theatre is painfully witty in its intelligent look at what we believe in 2011.

It helps that it stars Juliet Stevenson, one of the most interesting actresses on the theatre scene. Playing a scientist and skeptic, the dialogue with her colleague makes for some of the sharpest and funniest parts of the play.

court royal photo

Photo: Royal Court

Stevenson is the university professor, a scientist wedded to hard facts, not politics. Her colleague, formerly her lover, now her boss, is more practical: he sees that Earth Sciences is trendy, finally, and wants to take advantage of the businesses who are interested in donating to the faculty. That means that Stevenson cannot publish the article that finds that sea levels in the Maldives are not rising.

It is interesting that the playwright chose the Maldives as the area of expertise; it makes the drama, and skepticism, edgier because we all know that the country is in trouble due to climate change--don't we? As she reels off her arguments and facts with such finesse, one begins to wonder whether maybe she has something.

Things get complicated, of course. Her daughter is an anorexic Greenpeace member, her student is a green, brilliant, and depressed and she herself is getting death threats from the Secret Earth Militia. The second act loses the environmental plot and turns into a family drama about the relationships between all the main characters.

The playwright has done his homework on the issues. There are references to the "Climategate" scandal over the emails released by scientists at the University of East Anglia and the "hockey stick" graph from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report gets mentioned, as does Al Gore. But it isn't all sympathetic: in the end her colleague purposely distorts a scientific report to get a more favourable reaction from the public and politicians.

polar bear photo

Photo: Royal Court

The play has been panned by environmentalists. In his discussion of the play, TreeHugger Sami Grover quotes James Murray at Business Green who writes "if you think the climate threat is overblown it will offer warm and fuzzy reassurance, dressed up as intellectual rigour. It will discourage people from taking action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions... a dishonest, offensive and one-eyed exercise in provocation."

Fred Pearce in the Guardian says that "Dramatic licence is fine, but too often, Bean offers formulaic boffin-bashing culled from nasty blogs. Sadly, rather than exploring the scientific uncertainties and psychological traumas that led her on this road, Bean invites us simply to join her in rage. ...this nicely written but ultimately boorish and confected conspiracy tale."

The fact is that it's theatre, not a science text book. Because of the way that the play has been presented, you leave thinking about greenwash, where the truth lies, how to weigh up the facts, how many facts we really don't know and what our responsibility is to find out. It raises issues on both side of the argument: she is a skeptic amongst academics but her student hacks into a rival university's website and discovers incriminating emails covering up research. Whether this play will last the test of time as great dramatic art remains to be seen. But it does serve as a timely, entertaining and intelligent snapshot of contemporary issues.

More on Theatre about the Environment
Climategate Controversay Becomes Skeptic Friendly Play
Greenland Play Dramatises our Inept Responses to Climate Change

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