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November 13, 2014

Royal Court Theatre – 2071. Letter to Chris Rapley, 12th November 2014

Dear Chris,

first may I say how much I enjoyed the performance of 2071 at the Royal Court last night (November 12th). As an admirer of Duncan MacMillan's climate change play Lungs I confess I was hoping for another play, rather than a scientific monologue. On the other hand, the theatricality of this production is not to be denied. The scenography is stunning, in the same way black and white films can be. My spectatorial brain initially objected to the reduction of a planetary spectacle to humdrum shades of black, white and grey, but then the subliminal pattern-loving subconscious kicked in and revelled in the earthly fusion of shapes, musical sounds, rhythms, maps and numbers shifting, turning, spiralling behind and in tune with you as you spoke.

For me, the latest IPCC Assessment Report (AR) had seemed to put more emphasis on adaptation than mitigation, for what really comes over in the fragments I have read during the year is our vulnerability in the face of the changes human beings are inflicting on the climate system. It was good to hear a more upbeat message, even if I slightly despaired internally at the idea that human beings will be able to do the equivalent of sticking to a strict diet through generations, for hundreds of years.

Thank you, also, for digesting (in the space of an intense 75 minutes) several times the four and a half kilos in physical weight describing just one section of the IPCC AR, and for your no-holds-barred delivery of science. I revelled in the repetition of beautiful words such as cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and the penny dropped on the question I wanted to ask at the start. Delivering a lecture, why did you need a playwright? By the end I had answered my own question. We non-scientists cannot hope to understand the millions of recondite corners in the truly monumental work of the IPCC, but can happily play with words and connect to the physicality behind the science, just as you did - land, water, air, sun, sea-level, Argo floats, ice-house, collapse, interglacial, swamp forests, ice sheets, equilibrium.

There is one issue I really want to challenge you on. You stated that the necessary shift away from fossil fuels will render coal and oil reserves economically worthless. This idea - economic worth - begs further exploration. How it is used here suggests an embeddedness in the very culture your message would have us escape from. Considering the reason for the title of your monologue, I cautiously mention the common perception that informal care (such as grand-parenting) is economically worthless. This cannot be true. The part it plays in the societal ecosystem is beyond price, therefore its economic value (alongside many other kinds of value, tangible and intangible) is, by implication, considerable. The economy is in the social system and the social system is in the economy. Returning to your fossil fuel point, in a zero carbon world fossil fuel reserves are economically worthless. Yes, but the part they play in the ecosystem when still under the ground is beyond price therefore their economic value left under the ground (alongside many other kinds of value) is potentially enormous. The economy is within and subsidiary to the ecosystem therefore the ecosystem is also woven through the fabric of the economy; the problem is the narrow definition of economic worth.

I could not agree more with your conclusion. Science enlightens. It cannot tell us how we want to think, or live. What we need is the Brechtian moment in which we wake up to the fact that we have choices. So, I return to Duncan MacMillan's play Lungs. What I would really love to see is the two together, the 2071 ecomonologue followed by the visceral ecotheatrical dialogue.

Creatives: Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley. Direction: Katie Mitchell.


F. Carmichael and M.G. Egolani (2013). 'Overlooked and undervalued: the caring contribution of older people', International Journal of Social Economics, 42 (5).

Duncan MacMillan (2011). Lungs (London: Oberon Books).

November 06, 2014

Young Vic – The Cherry Orchard. 21st October 2014.

Sometimes, in nature, it's not the fittest animals that survive, it's the cruellest, says Peter, eternal student in Simon Stephens' version of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. This production successfully underscores the brutality running through human behaviour by highlighting individual moments of sadism, thus reminding of Stephens' climate change play Wastwater.

Early on in this version of the play Alexander describes a brutal beating at the hands of his drunken father, establishing abuse as an important leitmotif. As the play progresses Firs becomes increasingly fearful of the menacing bully Yasha, and the detail of the walking stick kicked from under him and the doctor's letter not sent after him to the hospital but torn up before our eyes leaves no-one in the audience in any doubt that Yasha intended him to die, imprisoned in the freezing old house at the end. As the family and its entourage chaotically moves on from the old way of life to the new, it is horribly clear that if everyone had not been so self-absorbed, someone might have noticed Firs' predicament. Yasha committed the crime, but everyone in the family was implicated in the act of murder.

The destruction of the cherry orchard is, in a similar vein, set in motion on the basis of an unwitting collaboration. Son of serf standing on the shoulders of former serf owners is helped by Adam Smith's invisible hand - the market in holiday homes supplanting the market for cherry preserves - as well as by the actions of others. Not unlike Yasha, Alexander did the deed, but Lyubov's self-indulgent passive reactivity accelerated the cross-generational series of actions leading inexorably towards environmental destruction. The question is, who is now the fittest to survive, Alexander, seemingly winning but still trapped in the system, or Anya and Peter, seeking to escape.

A play depicting orchestrated environmental and human wreckage is well served by an ensemble cast, and there was a strong team of actors at work here. Yasha (Tom Mothersdale) was satisfyingly unpleasant; Lyubov (Kaye Duchene) was cringingly self-pitying thus (appropriately) hard to pity; and there were some heart-tugging performances from Gawn Grainger, Natalie Klamar and Angus Wright, playing respectively Firs (touchingly keeping Leonid safe), Varya (pining painfully for Alexander) and Leonid (involuntarily propelled into an imaginary game of pool at difficult moments).

Absorbed in watching this comedy of survival, we the audience found we, too, had skin in the game, as the saying goes, thanks to a conventional but nonetheless effective theatrical tactic deployed early on. When Leonid and Lyubov, just back in their old home, were looking nostalgically out at the white cherry orchard under the moonlight, the audience became the trees at risk, proprietorial finger pointing directly at us. Through this trick of imaginary metamorphosis we became entangled, first with the (ominous) future then, later on in the play, with the past - for Peter and Anya, about to embark on a journey of atonement, we represented the voices of the souls of long dead slaves whose sweat and blood built the orchard. Chekhov's play draws out the connection between environmental degradation and slavery in the name of economic progress, then and now. Mitchell's production, incorporating all of us in Chekhov's ecosystem-at-risk, puts us at the core of the damaging nexus of human activity represented in the play.

Weaving the audience into the fabric of an imagined environment seems to be a regular ecotheatre riff. In John Godber's 2007 climate change play Crown Prince, the corner of a bowling green is centre stage and 'When the characters bowl towards the audience they have their eye on an imaginary jack somewhere out towards the centre of the audience.' Metaphorically speaking an unseen (environmental) 'curve ball' is bowled into the audience. So it is with this production of The Cherry Orchard. As the characters in the play say, at different moments: *We could change everything. We just don't. We have so much. We should be giants. We really, really aren't. Life is passing us by. It's as though we've never lived it at all.*

* Text between asterisks is drawn from the published text/theatre programme - see sources.

Creatives: Post Office Clerk - Cavan Clarke; Wanderer - Andy Cresswell; Lyubov Ranevskaya - Kate Duchene; Firs - Gawn Granger; Peter Trofimov - Paul Hilton; Station Master - Peter Hobday; Boris Simeonov- Pishchik - Stephen Kennedy; Varya - Natalie Klamar; Charlotte Ivanova - Sarah Malin; Yasha - Tom Mothersdale; Dunyasha - Sarah Ridgeway; Alexander Lopakhin - Dominic Rowan; Simeon Yepikhodov - Hugh Skinner; Anya - Catrin Stewart; Leonid Gaev - Angus Wright. Direction - Katie Mitchell; Design - Vicki Mortimer.

Sources. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, English Language Version by Simon Stephens (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014). Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, translated by Sharon Marie Carnicke (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2010). John Godber, 'Crown Prince', in Plays: 4 (London: Methuen Drama, 2009). Simon Stephens, 'Wastwater', in Wastwater and T5 (London: Methuen Drama, 2011). Played at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court in March 2011.

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