Climate Change Plays

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 25 February 2011

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner & Jack Thorne, Greenland, Lyttleton Theatre

Richard Bean, The Heretic, Royal Court Theatre

The trouble with global warming is that you can’t see it happening. You can see its effects on the ground, of course, but not the thing itself. Greenhouse gases remain stubbornly invisible, so their accumulation in the atmosphere must be visualized by other means, plotted onto those fearsome looking graphs that tell us we’re all going to fry. Who can forget the famous scene in An Inconvenient Truth (2006) where Al Gore is hoisted by hydraulic lift some ten metres up the y-axis of an elongated graph showing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, projected to the year 2100. After 2050, when a concentration of around 550 parts per million had been reached, the temperature line went vertical, soaring beyond the furthest reach of the fireman’s lift, in a dramatic literalization of the statistical concept of a measurement going off the scale. That episode has become an indelible part of the climate change story, an iconic image of runaway warming – or runaway alarmism, depending on your viewpoint – and it haunts this pair of thematically linked plays in revealingly different ways.

The National Theatre’s multi-authored Greenland begins in a stylised supermarket through which teenage eco-activist Lisa (Isabella Laughland) hurtles in a suspended shopping trolley, denouncing the fact that so much of what we eat is wrapped in plastic and flown half-way round the world. “How many planes just to bring us our shopping?”, she asks, as a vast projection appears on a screen behind her: it’s that graph again, complete with its accusing vertical, up which Lisa suddenly ascends in her fly-wired trolley in an affectionate parody of Gore’s great elevation. As her parents watch nervously from below, Lisa announces her decision to become a full-time climate warrior: “Mum, the ice is melting and I’m really, really scared.” Over at the Royal Court, meanwhile, climatologist Kevin Maloney (James Fleet) complains that the infamous y-axis is in fact upside down: “If you get up really close to the telly, and freeze frame it, you can see. You work your guts out, a lifetime, then some smarmy tit comes along, gets his y-axis upside down and picks up a Nobel Peace Prize.”

As these two snapshots suggest, Greenland and The Heretic cover much the same ground, but their outlooks are worlds apart. Greenland is a passionate, data-driven analysis of our wavering response to environmental catastrophe, while The Heretic is a cynical campus comedy that views the pieties surrounding climate change (“the artist formerly known as global warming”) as ripe for a knockabout farce. Neither makes for particularly comfortable viewing.

Like last year’s Earthquakes in London, in which the looming climate crisis was examined from multiple points of view (and the Cottesloe transformed into a psychedelic cabaret bar), Greenland is a fast-moving collage of intersecting storylines that merge into one another at breakneck speed. Without Bunny Christie’s ingenious design and Aline David’s mesmerising choreography, the whole thing would be unwatchable, but once you’ve got used to the fragmented structure, the play – or rather plays – take on an extraordinary collective energy, as the action moves between climate camps and COP15 (the disastrous Copenhagen Summit of December 2009), via a series of restaurants and hotel bedrooms, all of which requires the fifteen-strong cast to switch between multiple roles with seamless rapidity.

Inevitably, some of the storylines are more rewarding than others: the relationship between Peter McDonald’s troubled climate modeller, Ray, and Lyndsey Marshal’s steely-eyed politician (“Phoebe Hammond, Department of Energy; I hope you’re not wasting my time”) is wonderfully well observed, while the arguments between a lesbian couple over how to lead a greener lifestyle are wearisomely banal. Lisa’s commitment to climate activism is also endearing and annoying by turns, though it occasions some good lines, such as her question during a heated discussion at a climate camp meeting: “Excuse me, are you an activist or an anarchist? It’s just that the anarchists are on at 2.” But the best scenes of all are those set at Copenhagen, where the self-serving politics of climate compromise are dissected with anger and panache. We follow a pair of civil servants from the Mali delegation (“there are fifty of us – more than Belgium!”) as they arrive at the summit full of expectation, only to be worn down by ten sleepless days and nights of “negotiation by exhaustion”, at the end of which Obama flies in to negotiate in private with a handful of selected representatives. When the “Copenhagen Accord” was announced the following day, the majority of delegates had no idea what was in it. Phoebe Hammond, attending the summit with her boss Ed Miliband (the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), is in bed with Ray the climate scientist (and his laptop) when the surprise announcement is made, and in one of the evening’s more effective sequences, they watch crestfallen as the scale of the summit’s failure sinks in. Meanwhile, Ray’s latest climate model spools out behind them on a giant screen, its implications clear for all to see: that the Copenhagen agreement has grotesquely underestimated the scale of future warming to which our atmosphere is irreversibly committed. “By the time your daughter is 35 the tarmac on her road will be melting twice a year, and she will probably have to teach her children how to use a gun.” Phoebe, however, is already getting dressed, late for the accidental “brush-by” with Obama that she has been frantically arranging for her boss. “Do you fancy him?” asks Ray, as Miliband’s face fills the screen, and Phoebe’s answer: “No. I tried” gets the biggest laugh of the night.

There are more and bigger laughs in Richard Bean’s The Heretic, though far less in the way of substance. Jaded earth scientist Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson), who has spent her research career monitoring sea level rises in the Maldives, has made an unsettling discovery: sea levels there are not technically rising; which is to say, the sea is rising, but so are the islands. It seems these long-standing poster children for climate catastrophe are not about to drown. Having ignored her head of department’s warning not to publish her findings (he is worried they might jeopardize future funding), Cassell receives the first of a series of death threats from a radical environmental group called the Sacred Earth Militia. “All heretic’s must die”, it reads, complete with misplaced apostrophe. Could it be the work of her problematic student, the über-green Ben Shotter (a superbly shambolic Johnny Flynn), who refuses to board the university minibus on the grounds that it’s bad for the planet? Cassell, now transformed into a full-scale climate sceptic, is suspended from her post following a tumultuous appearance on Newsnight in which she declares to a video-projected Paxman that “there is no evidence that CO2 is the cause of twentieth-century warming . . . the real global warming disaster is that a small cohort of hippies who went into climate science because they could get paid for spending all day on the beach smoking joints have suddenly become the most powerful people in the world.”

Satire doesn’t have to be realistic, of course, but it should at least try to be plausible, and the problem with The Heretic is that its sheer galloping implausibility distracts from the questions that it really wants to ask about the politicization of science. Cassell’s professional situation is simply not credible, and neither is that of her boss (and former lover) Kevin Maloney, who by the second half of the play is not only beginning to come round to her way of thinking, but is sitting in her kitchen helping Ben the bicycling student hack the emails of Kieron McKay, a leading climate scientist at the University of Hampshire who has refused a Freedom of Information request to release his historical data. Sound familiar? It’s Climategate, shifted from UEA, of course, but with the same basic features in place, including the disguising of an inconvenient cooling phase through the binning of awkward data. None of this is news to Dr Cassell – “I’m a sceptic because I have no choice, the science isn’t good enough” – but for Professor Maloney the stolen emails are a revelation, even though it turns out that he is similarly guilty, having been caught out making misleading claims about the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers. “This is one scientist bodging,” he says. “We’ve all done it. I know the planet’s warming from the ice cores I’ve drilled myself. I go to Greenland every year – you can stand on the glaciers and watch them melting.” Meanwhile, the Sacred Earth Militia have Cassell’s house surrounded, just as her anoxeric daughter goes into cardiac arrest, and the plot begins to terminally unravel.

The curious thing about both these productions is how historically specific they are. “Isn’t this all a bit 2009?” as one of the characters in Greenland asks, to which the answer is a categorical “yes”: Climategate and the Copenhagen Summit dominated the headlines during November and December that year, and for those two hectic months it was as if the politics of climate change had recalibrated the world, and that nothing would be the same again. These two plays were presumably commissioned in the midst of all that high-level drama; one year on, however, climate change has all but disappeared from the news schedules and (rather like Ed Miliband himself) it takes a bit of effort to recall how important it seemed at the time. It’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine what a climate change play set today might look like, though Greenland gets close in a brief flash-forward in which Ray the climate modeller meets up with Phoebe in the aftermath of the 2010 election. Ray wants to give up science – it’s too depressing and no-one listens anyway – but Phoebe remains determined to stay in policy-making, even as a blizzard of paper descends over the entire auditorium, the play whiting out in a storm of information, as the audience is blinded by data.

Richard Hamblyn


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