Friday 4 February 2011

Lots of people tittered

Greenland, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

Open your Greenland programme and you’ll be presented with a barrage of facts. They might be painted in pretty colours and laid out nicely but they are still just facts. That’s fitting, because it’s close to what you’ll experience watching Greenland; a collection of striking facts, which look good and sound impressive, but create about as much impact as an ice cube knocking against a glacier.

A central scene, involving a huge polar bear, highlights the disconnect between the impact this play is trying to create and the way it sets about achieving this goal. One of the strands in this straggly piece (it is written by four playwrights, including Moira Buffini and Jack Thorne) follows a young boy who talks to his older self, camped out in the ass end of Alaska. Here, they encounter melting ice and birds who, although they are ‘dancing’, are also in danger. These endangered birds are actually depicted rather beautifully and, when their projections float across stage and into the audience, a respectful silence settles. It is as if, for a moment, we recognise what we risk losing as we romp through our resources. But then the polar bear prowls onstage.

Lots of critics have argued this polar bear is Greenland‘s best moment and it certainly stands out – but for all the wrong reasons. Projections are used effectively throughout this production but, when it comes to the polar bear, the writers and director (Bijan Sheibani) have opted for a ‘realistic’ representation. So, instead of a suitably ethereal bear, projected hauntingly across the back stage, we get the equivalent of a pantomime horse. Lots of people tittered. The attempt to represent this polar bear too closely - to force its presence onto stage rather than emote its impact – turns it into a figure of fun. This is a criticism that could be applied to the whole production: these talented writers, in an attempt to force real and frightening facts into their play, have made them all to easy to laugh off.

The preoccupation with facts also means the stories feel stretched and the characters, on the whole, perfunctory. It becomes easy to dismiss Greenland as a preachy piece about climate change – something distant and non-threatening – as opposed to a scary and recognisable exploration of something that will affect us all. The lesbian couple, torn apart by one lady’s devout devotion to the climate change cause, feel like they’ve been drafted in from a sketch show. Their scenes feel remote and inauthentic. It is equally tough to connect with the young woman who embraces environmentalism, only after embracing a sexy activist. Most of the characters are pretty unlikeable and few of the stories exert any real emotional or intellectual sway.

One of the plot-lines that does settle is that between climate-model scientist, Dr Ray (Peter McDonald, who adds admirable nuance to his role) and sexy but stern politician Phoebe (Lyndsey Marshal). Theirs is the only story given any real space to develop and their banter feels fresh; a prolonged conversation over voicemail, in which the two imagine ‘worst case scenarios’, is a rare example of important ideas being disseminated, but not at the cost of the characters.

The scenes at the Copenhagen Summit are also good; if only one of these sparky writers had written about just this. The summit sections take us behind the scenes of this political powwow and it is entertaining and disturbing stuff. These politicians might be wrangling out one of the most important deals in the history of the planet – but they are also horny and exhausted and dying for a drink. It lends an intriguingly human and fragile perspective to this global dilemma. With these scenes, Greenland manages to dramatise its facts and, for a moment, they add up to something.


Till 2 April 2010


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Royal Shakespeare Company
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