Thursday, August 5, 2010

FINALLY, A GOOD PLAY ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE: maybe polar cities life will hit Broadway soon, too?


How do you create drama over what seems so far away? Just watch "The Contingency Plan", writes Robert Butler...

If there's one line I had to choose from "The Contingency Plan", Steve Waters’s terrific new double-bill of plays about climate change, now on at the Bush Theatre in London, it's the moment when Will Paxton (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a young glaciologist, explains the concept of displacement to the new Tory minister for climate change. Having spelled out that ice is "basically parked water", Will warily predicts that the enormous West Antarctic Ice Sheet may well melt (much like the smaller Larsen B ice shelf).

"But this is thousands of miles from us," chuckles the smooth Old Etonian minister (David Bark-Jones), whose schoolfriend, David Cameron, has become prime minister. Will replies with patience, "If you pour water in the bath, it doesn't stay under the tap."

Climate change is a difficult subject for dramatists. Three years ago Caryl Churchill, a playwright, introduced a talk by two leading environmental scientists by stressing that their work raises an essential dramatic problem: one of distance. To transport science to the stage, a playwright must not only clarify complicated ideas for laypeople, but also evoke the tension of cause and effect. The problem with climate change is that what happens in one place often ends up affecting people in an entirely different place, and at a remote time. The two worlds can seem unrelated. Where's the catalyst for drama?

In "The Contingency Plan", Waters succeeds in closing this gap. It is impossible to see this play and not feel a keener interest in what’s going on in the Antarctic. The melting ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels, which then threaten the lives of British citizens on the coasts and in London, whether it’s Bermondsey, Chelsea or Battersea ("suddenly you notice all the 'seas'," quips the minister). This is not about righteousness, but about lives and safety.

"On The Beach", the first of two related plays, sees Will returning from his work with the British Antarctic Survey, where he's seen unprecedented melting and acquired a new girlfriend, Sarika (Stephanie Street), a high-flying civil servant from the Department of Climate Change. They visit his parents in Norfolk, overlooking the sand dunes and salt marshes, where we learn of his family's painful history in climate science. His father, an ex-glaciologist, quit his research for seemingly inexplicable reasons (having reached similar conclusions), and father and son butt heads. In the second play, "Resilience", Will and Sarika race down to London to brief the minister.

In 1953 the combination of a high spring tide, a windstorm and a tidal surge caused severe flooding and ultimately killed hundreds of people in Britain and nearly 2,000 in the Netherlands. A similar severe weather event looks imminent, only this time sea levels are higher, perhaps much higher.

Yes, these plays have the thrill of a disaster story, a race against the clock. But the real appeal comes from the passionate and often comically exasperating exchanges that take place when one character tries to explain to another what’s going on. There's a large and often hilarious gulf between the science and the politics, the problem and the proposed solution. The minister has to decide that Saturday evening whether to evacuate homes, close down roads and commandeer community centres or to let eastern England curl up on the sofa and watch "Strictly Come Dancing".

When Will explains how cold water will rush south-east from Greenland, get sucked into the Atlantic, gather momentum towards the Shetlands, then smack into East Anglia and perhaps funnel up the Thames Estuary, our response--after shock and incredulity--is one of revelation. Okay, now we get it. And this is what makes Waters's play so satisfying: it's sharp and funny, but also well-researched and scary. He has managed what had seemed impossible and written an intelligent and entertaining play about climate change.

Theatre had been extraordinarily slow in engaging with environmental degradation. Nancy Oreskes, a science historian, claims that popular culture in general has lagged 30 years behind the science. There have been exceptions: in 1993 Tony Kushner had an angel appear through the ozone layer in "Angels in America". In 2006 there was an MP3 audio opera about climate change by Platform, and Caryl Churchill wrote a libretto about climate change for a choral work at the Proms. In 2008 Lawrence Weschler organised a festival of nine short plays about climate change (Don DeLillo wrote one). And this year TippingPoint announced a competition to commission new performance work on the subject.

But "The Contingency Plan", the first decent full-length treatment, has set the standard. In the first night interval on May 7th critics could be overheard comparing it with other science plays ("Arcadia" and "Copenhagen") and Waters with other political playwrights (Bernard Shaw and David Hare). Many wondered why no-one's ever written a play about this before.

"The Contingency Plan" by Steve Waters, at the Bush Theatre until June 6th

Picture credit: wili_hybrid (via Flickr)

(Robert Butler is a theater critic. He now blogs on the arts and the environment at the ashden directory.)

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