Wednesday 16 February 2011

To save the planet, innit

The Heretic, Royal Court, London

Perched upright on the green sofa for the latest edition of The Review Show to discuss Greenland, Mark Ravenhill suggested that theatre thrives on taboo. ‘Most of world drama,’ Ravenhill said, ‘is based on stuff that we haven’t quite talked about, that we haven’t quite acknowledged, something that’s a bit taboo’. It invokes the unsayable in a very public forum.

When it comes to global warming, then, Ravenhill suggests theatre loses a major role, since everything is out in the open. We already know and we already feel and yet, we still don’t act. Hence the repeated accusation that such work is just hectoring lecturing. At the bidding of holier-than-thou preachers, the converted self-inflict forty lashes, before returning home for a fossil fuel bonfire.

All of which might explain why, in The Heretic, Richard Bean approaches the subject from the opposite angle. The heresy in question is that of climate change denial – or, to be more precise, scientific scepticism. After all, isn’t that the great taboo of our times, in which greenery has sprouted in the most unlikely of places? It is, as Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson) puts it, ‘the perfect religion for the narcissistic age. It provides a clear definition of sin. Drive to work – sinful. Cycle – righteous’.

An earth scientist at York University, Dr Cassell has started receiving death threats off the back of her research, which shows the stability of sea levels in the Maldives. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s sacked for publishing without permission in a culture where fearmongering brings funding. That her head of department is an old flame slowly rekindling and her daughter, Phoebe, an aggressive anorexic only serve as additional hindrances.

The one positive is her newest pupil, gawky eco-absolutist Ben (Johnny Flynn), who opted for her course ‘to save the planet, innit’, but soon finds himself won over by the rigour of her scientific scepticism.

Bean is not out to deny climate change himself, else he would not couch his arguments in fiction. There is no escaping the fact that, although he bases narrative on a particular instance of falsified scientific research, the so-called Climategate scandal of 2009, Bean is free to concoct his own evidence. To offer a credible stance of opposition, he would have to embark upon documentary theatre a la David Hare.

Rather than taking aim at the science, then, Bean is concerned with people. Underpinning The Heretic is the idea that you can prove anything with facts. His interest lies in the motivations – mostly financial and social – behind the science and the actions and attitudes that stem from it. Intriguing to note that where evidence gets called, the subjective position is often called into question. ‘What have you got against carbon dioxide?’ Diane demands, only half-jokingly, of Ben. And, when lamenting an unverified theory, her senior Kevin notes, ‘Unfortunately for me, millions didn’t die’. Though no one’s actually fiddling the figures, they’re spun into cyclones to conform to or falsify theories. At the root of which, more often than not, is found money, power, reputation and pride. No one approaches the subject with neutrality.

In many ways, then, Bean has discovered in climate change all the ingredients for crack drama. He’s particularly astute on the matter of hubris. Kevin rattles off the ill-fates that befell other academic disciplines – psychology, sociology, media studies (almost sicking up the words, such is his disdain) – over the past fifty years, before earth sciences took up its rightful place at the top of the pile: ‘We are the kings of the castle. Let’s not fuck it up eh!’

In fact, that misplaced hubris is echoed by humanity as a whole. Bean fills his play with images of the food-chain. People bite the heads off squirrels, run over cats and gut fish. Where Kevin orders a pizza, it’s no coincidence that he opts for a meat feast. This is not living off the land, as gorging on it and yet, come the play’s end, still we’re standing tall, admiring our reflection in the water: kings of the earth. ‘We’, preaches Kevin to the converted gathered round, ‘are the miracle’.

That position ignores the natural ebb and flow of ecosystems. As much as Earth Sciences will be succumb to another voguish discipline, so too, in all likelihood, will humanity as a whole. That’s evolution, baby. It’s a process that recurs in Bean’s generational mirroring, whereby Ben and Phoebe mirror Diane and Kevin’s nostalgic reflections of their youthful selves. Humans are as prone to weathering processes as the earth itself, such that IRA activists can wind up working in Milletts. Bean’s play proves a meditation on aging as much as enviroment.

In fact, I suspect Bean has found too many ingredients. The Heretic is far less tightly coiled than we’ve come to expect from the Royal Court of late, and that prevents it reaching dramatic velocity. It’s as if he’s kept adding strands in the hope of tying things together, only to discover further frayed ends. That he has to toss a cardiac arrest into the middle of a kidnap attempt shows the bagginess of his plot. Its dramatic thrust is quite inorganic, which dilutes its potency.

Nonetheless, as a glimpse into a series of connected events, The Heretic offers lashings of wit. A number of its laugh-lines would rival Clybourne Park’s deliberate gags, only here they come skilfully embedded into conversation. They’re well served by one of the most perfectly cast ensembles of recent years. Stevenson finds in Diane the dryness of a desert parched by thirty years of rising temperatures and yet remains likeable. Her brain seems to function with unnatural rhythms, sometimes as agile as a ping-pong pro, sometimes so deep in concentration that she could have slipped beyond meditation and into a coma. James Fleet, our foremost ‘in a band once’ actor, brings a soft-focus sweetness to Kevin’s hopelessness and Lydia Wilson, fast cementing a position amongst the best of the new wave of actors, balances spikiness with the odd tender smile superbly.

But, the most enjoyable and extraordinary creation is Johnny Flynn’s Ben. Jauntily awkward and jittery with uncertainty, Flynn has tapped so astutely into the rhythm of Bean’s writing that almost everything he says comes laced with laughter. He performs Ben’s logical somersaults, counter-intuitive but – to his surprise as much as ours – keenly astute, with a deft instinct for pause and punchline. The Heretic is worth catching for any of these superlative performances alone, but it offers much more besides.

Till 19 March 2011


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