Wednesday 9 February 2011

Standard issue

Water, Tricycle Theatre, London

There is a landslide of environmental theatre in London at the moment. You’d think that, spurred on by its being deemed beyond theatre’s reach, playwrights are aspiring to the topic as a holy grail of sorts. Richard Bean’s The Heretic opens at the Royal Court next week. Before then, though, we’ve had two very different offerings, each of which, oddly enough, succeed precisely where the other fails: the National’s very deliberate, multi-authored Greenland and, at the Tricycle, a revival of Filter’s Water, first seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2008.

Greenland has born the brunt of criticism. Its various narratives and vignettes flap around like flags in heavy winds, never quite tethered too one another. It could easily be accused of bombarding its audience, hectoring them without sufficiently heeding the action and there’s a heavy waft of Enron about it.

Water, on the other hand, is more dramaturgically solid; it has drive and control, offering two stories with four narrative strands wound together to form a single rope. It is coherent and credible, personal and political, and yet, it’s actually pretty bland and unambitious. It’s easy watching. Going against the tide, in spite of all its flaws, I’m siding with the less hospitable terrain of Greenland.

In short, Water is drama by numbers. Its plots are standard issue: one, a selling-out linked with the rejection of inheritance; the other, a romance cut short entwined with an adventure gone wrong. Only, it so happens that each character has some connect to the element in question. Peter Johnson (Ferdy Roberts) is a scientist who predicts the implications of rising water temperatures, but – much like Earthquakes in London’s Robert – drops his concerns for financial gain. His sons, Graham and Chris (Oliver Dinsdale) are, respectively, a frugal environmental officer and a flash DJ at a Vancouver radio station called, ahem, Wail FM (Geddit?). Playing in parallel is the break-up of an ultra-deep diver and a delegate at the Helsinki G8 summit (Victoria Moseley).

The trouble is Water’s transparency. The mind-map of ideas is so close to the surface that none of these connections seem intrinsic to the drama. The connection actually turns out to be an arbitrary additional. Any connective tissue would do. At least, Greenland really takes aim at its chosen subject. It might not win the wrangle, but it’s fighting the right foe.

But all this is harsh on a show that is never less anything but watchable, especially one that oughtn’t necessarily be boxed up as a climate play. It is rather a piece about relationships that glances environmental issues like a stone skimming water.

Filter’s work has an innate theatricality, albeit one heavily indebted to Complicite and Robert LePage. Occasionally, they slip into superfluous flair, employing showy techniques that don’t necessarily enhance or illustrate. That said, it certainly delights, particularly in the company’s signature sound-score constructed live by Tim Phillips. The taps of typing becomes the pitter of rain and various pings on a wine-glass, the drips from a leaking roof into a bucket.

Though that invention isn’t recompense for the dilettantism with which they tackle their subject, it definitely serves to make it palatable. Though Water makes for enjoyable theatre, it does so at the expense of an effect on the world beyond. Almost as if, for fear of challenging, accusing or offending its audience, it absolves us of responsibilities, both past, present and future.

Till 5 March 2011


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