Richard Van Noorden considers a technical lecture that ultimately fails as theatre.
House lights down. A spotlight picks out a man, seated: climate scientist Chris Rapley. “I'm here to talk about the future,” he says. Behind him on three giant video walls swirl greyscale images of tides and seas, and satellite views of Earth. So begins 2071, a piece about climate change at London's Royal Court Theatre.
Rapley calmly lays out his credentials. Professor of climate science at University College London; former director of the British Antarctic Survey; former director of London's Science Museum. At a measured pace, he unfolds what he has seen and what scientists have learned, through means such as satellites, ocean buoys and ice cores, about the crumbling West Antarctic Ice Sheet, sea-level rise, the Holocene and Anthropocene epochs, and the interactions between lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and atmosphere. The grey backing visuals break into big, moving white-on-black bar charts.
After 15 minutes, the audience realizes that there will be no let-up: 2071 is not a play, but an address just over an hour long. Rapley is the sole performer. This is a scientific lecture.
Global sea-levels are rising by 3.3 millimetres a year, Rapley says. The ocean is acidifying. Changes in solar radiation are not responsible for the observed temperature rise, because we see that the upper atmosphere is not warming, but cooling. The multisyllabic drone goes on, a flow of data lent emotional resonance only by a tense, unsettling soundtrack.
Rapley and director Katie Mitchell are trying, perhaps in response to the histrionic climate politics of recent years, to establish a quiet, concentrated atmosphere in which to lay out the facts. But Rapley's monochrome recital risks sending his viewers into a climate trance, eyes glazed over by science. At one point, he starts quoting verbatim from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; his delivery hardly changes in tone. The script's worst sin is that it fails even on its own terms. Although he sets himself up as bringing home scientific truths, Rapley in fact makes no effort to convey the human realities of acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, or two- or four-degree rises in global temperature. (The play's title makes a stab at humanizing the proceedings — 2071 is the year when Rapley's eldest grandchild will be the age he is now. But it's an awkward attempt.)
Mitchell's critically acclaimed 2012 play on population, Ten Billion, featured another professor, computational scientist Stephen Emmott, delivering another talk, in a stage recreation of his office. But where that was an entertaining polemic (“I think we're fucked,” Emmott concluded), 2071 is sober and technical. Despite the scientific consensus behind Rapley's words, it is difficult to imagine that it will engage even a willing audience. Aiming for authenticity, Mitchell and Rapley have missed a chance to create a piece of drama that really gets under the skin of the issue; one that might seamlessly blend instruction and inspiration. But for those with an appetite for the stark facts on climate change, 2071 is just the ticket.