Two contrasting plays highlight the difficulties of putting global warming on stage, finds Kerri Smith.
- Moira Buffini ,
- Matt Charman ,
- Penelope Skinner &
- Jack Thorne
Ferocious debate has polarized the issue of climate change — and two plays currently running in London reveal many facets of those arguments. Greenland is a rational but disjointed assessment of how urgent and alarming our predicament is, whereas The Heretic is an entertaining family drama with a climate sceptic as the protagonist.
Greenland, at the National Theatre, is a production almost as complex and unwieldy as climate change itself. It weaves together several narratives: a student-teacher becomes a green activist; a birdwatcher witnesses habitat change in the Arctic; a couple argue over their individual contributions to global warming. These unfolding tales share the stage with falling rain and a remarkably life-like model of a polar bear.
The most engaging scenes involve the play's climate modeller, Ray, and a government official, Phoebe, sent to gather data ahead of the December 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen. She arrives at the lab after he has worked all night on his model; he is reticent to let her see his work before it has been peer reviewed. When they get to Copenhagen, we are given a sense of the convoluted processes involved in drafting an international policy agreement when a dozen weighty volumes fall from the ceiling and land with a thud.
But the multitude of characters and jumbled storylines make this play difficult to follow. Laced with statistics and quotes, it feels at times like a lecture. Greenland's four writers — Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne — spent months researching the topic by interviewing experts, activists and journalists. The team hoped to convey the complexity of the issue, says the play's artistic director, Ben Power. “We're trying to explore the feeling of powerlessness,” he adds. What they actually depict, in shoehorning all their research onto the stage, is confusion.
- Richard Bean
Richard Bean's The Heretic is easier to watch, with its linear storyline, entertaining characters and laugh-out-loud dialogue. But its factual errors will infuriate some scientists.
The play centres on fictitious professor Diane Cassell, who studies sea-level change in the Maldives. Her data suggest that there is no rise — putting her at odds with her department and making her a target for death threats from an environmental activist group. She infuriates her colleagues even further when she defends her views on a television show hosted by BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman — playing himself in a pre-recorded video cameo — leading to a dramatic turn of events.
Cassell also tutors a student with strong environmentalist leanings and helps her own daughter, a Greenpeace member, to battle anorexia. One section draws on the e-mail hacking controversy of November 2009 at the University of East Anglia, UK. Cassell's student hacks into another university's mainframe and discovers e-mails in which the author was keen to 'bury the downturn' — a reference to “hide the decline”, a phrase in the real hacked e-mails that was seized upon by climate sceptics.
The problem with The Heretic is that although the 'science' presented is sloppy in places, its mouthpiece, Cassell, is likeable, witty and compelling — perhaps enough to convince the audience that the science is sound. Cassell argues, for instance, that the research on sea levels that went into reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “used a single tide gauge”, rather than the many records that climate scientists actually collected. Interviewed after the play, environmental economist Dimitri Zenghelis of the London School of Economics, who consulted on Greenland, voiced concerns about the misinformation that Cassell's character helps to propagate.
Both plays do a good job of portraying their scientific protagonists as people. In Greenland, climate scientist Ray worries whether it is irresponsible to start a family given future climate risks. Cassell in The Heretic grapples with family and romantic dramas as well as her scientific dilemma. Zenghelis says one helpful aspect of The Heretic is that Cassell's character identifies “the problem of objective scientists without an agenda struggling to be heard”. But in the real world, it is not the sceptics who have trouble getting their message out: “[The Heretic] got things the wrong way around,” he says.
On the evidence of these two plays, climate science and theatre do not seem to be natural bedfellows. But like the Iraq War or the Enron financial scandal (both subjects of recent plays), complex topics that affect everyone should be dramatized. They just need to be accurate as well as entertaining. “People said to us, 'For God's sake make it an interesting play! Don't lecture us',” Power admits of Greenland. In the end, The Heretic meets this target. Greenland falls short.
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Smith, K. Theatre: Poles apart on climate. Nature 471, 32–33 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/471032a