Plays about climate change are all the rage in London right now. What with The Heretic at the Royal Court and Greenland at The National playing simultaneously, it appears theater land is suddenly making a conscious effort to get involved in the climate conversation. Nicholas Hytner, director of The National, Britain's largest theatre complex, commissioned Greenland with the express wish that theatre step up and tackle the biggest issue of our time, not only practically behind the scenes, but also dramatically on the stage.
Young British Talent
Greenland is a play, for better or worse, devised by committee. Four of the UK's most talented young playwrites, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, were invited to co-create a play that reflected our society's current position on climate change. At a pre-show talk last week the writers got together on stage with director Bijan Sheibani and dramaturg Ben Power to discuss how they approached this wholly unwieldy subject.
Interestingly all parties were open about the fact they knew very little, if anything at all, about the complex social and political machinations around climate change. "We began with a huge number of questions, and we needed a team who was up for that breadth, complexity, confusion and uncertainty," said Bijan Sheibani.
Image by Helen Warner
Facing up to Climate Change
They were all overwhelmed at the start, but, as Moira Buffini explained, the writers found support by working in a group. "I already knew that my next work was going to be on the subject of climate change, but you have to turn around and face it and I hadn't had the courage to do that. To be able to face the enormity and complexity of the subject in a supportive group was an amazing opportunity."
Matt Charman amusingly recounted the developments the structure of the play went through, saying at one stage they were improvising a storyline around the Stern Report and the principles of Cap and Trade. "But," he said in a deadpan voice "we soon realised that wasn't the most interesting work we could do."
In the initial research period the four playwrites read voraciously, including the whole Stern Report in one case, and spoke to scientists, politicians and business leaders. Moira Buffini described her surprise at finding James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, to be an entirely reasonable man, with a disappointment in her voice that suggested she expected him to be totally deranged.
Reflecting the Personal, Political and Scientific
The writers then went away and wrote their own storylines, each with its own style and central character that represents a different issue or sphere of the climate change debate. These strands were then woven together to create a constantly chopping and changing piece of theater which attempts to "reflect the vast variety of the issues we face in personal choice, politics and science."
Image by Helen Warner
The play opens with a scene of a young man on a UK TV game show, called Deal or No Deal, where contestants bet all their winnings on the unknown contents of a single box. This was a neat and clever allegory for our continual search for the silver bullet solution. Then we meet the young woman who ditches her stable middle class life to become an outsider climate activist, clearly inspired by Tamsin Omond. Next we are confronted by a rowing couple whose relationship is breaking down under the strain of one half's obsessive energy saving behaviour.
COP15 raises its ugly head with Ed Miliband's assistant running around like a headless chicken demanding the latest climate models from a hapless climate scientist before flying to the Copenhagen summit. Finally we meet the passionate conservationist geographer, also based on a real person George Divoky, who spends three lonely months of each year counting Black Guillemots populations on an Arctic island.
The Human Element
It's a rather relentless journey back and forth through these character's trials and tribulations in their seemingly futile endeavours to make a difference. All of them being portrayed as frantic, frustrated, distracted, disturbed and not a little mad. The dramatisation of the entirely useless Copenhagen process being the craziest of all.
All in all, from my point of view as someone who works in sustainability everyday, Greenland felt like a depressingly accurate, if clichéd and very literal, representation of our chaotic, conflicting and ineffectual responses to climate change. The play is mostly loud, shouty and frantic, but is actually most successful in its quieter moments when each interwoven storyline highlights how, in the end, our human egos and desires always get in the way of real progress.
Unfortunately this made for a rather bleak evening out at the theatre. Though of course, some would say, this is only appropriate given the subject matter.
Informing the Public or Preaching to the Choir?
However, more interesting than my slightly embattled interpretation would be to hear what non-enviro members of the audience made of it? The real question perhaps is, has Greenland appealed to a wide spectrum of theatre goers or has it just attracted the climate change and environmental community who are curious to see how their life's work is represented on stage. Is Greenland just preaching to the choir?
When asked what their motivation was for the play all the writers backed away from the notion that they were taking a specific stance on the subject. Buffini said, "I think it is hubristic for any artist to have the goal of changing people's minds." Other comments included, "We are not here to tell you what to think, we're just sharing our questions and where we are on our journey." and "The important thing is to be part of the conversation that is going on right now and for years to come."
In one concession to the responsibility of the writer, and perhaps his desire to evade it, Jack Thorne admitted he wished the last scene of play didn't end with his storyline of the Arctic conservationist as "it might have been better to finish with something more upbeat, to leave the audience with a sense of hope."
Greenland is playing at The National Theatre until April 2nd. Book tickets here. You can also peruse the related events programme, which rather interestingly/surprisingly creates platforms for the skeptic voices of Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson.
If you've seen Greenland please let us know what you thought in the comments below.
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