Artistic director Vicky Featherstone's Royal Court season is themed around “revolutions: big and small acts of resistance.” After two rumbunctious plays up and downstairs at the venue, this sombrely-served climate change lecture is more of a cold white wine than a molotov cocktail.
It’s marketed as a play, and has a director, lighting designer and set designer as you might expect. But searing new writing it isn’t. Co-writer and performer Chris Rapley is exactly who he says he is – a scientist who’s directed surveys of the Antartic, and former director of the Science Museum. Here, there’s only the slightest pixel of influence from the Museum’s flashy audience-friendly displays in the form of Chloe Lamford’s design, which enfolds him in vast projection screens. Rapley is real but icily uncharismatic in the centre of images of melting Antarctic snows, maps, and timelines that stretch through the eons.
His 70 minute climate change message has the urgent earnestness of the moments where the plug is pulled on TV schedules for an emergency transmission on an earthquake, terrorist attack, national sweetheart's death. But his narrative isn't compelling enough to stop us longing for normal programming to be resumed.
Rapley starts from a place of complete objectivity, describing in immense detail the scientific measures used to observe climate change. He recalls seeing scientists drill holes in polar ice that are up to five kilometres deep, and feeling primordial ice bubble and crack in his hands. He talks about satellites and instruments of measurement minutely calibrated and focused to lead to one conclusion – that the earth is getting warmer. He dismisses the ideas that this is due to the earth's natural cycles, or the sun getting hotter, in a rising watertight case for anthrogenic global warming.
But it’s hard to emotionally invest in Rapley’s testimony, even when he tells us that his daughter could be breathing carbon we’re creating now in 2071. He’s a scientist – he must know that we could just as easily drink water that could be recycled dinosaur swamp or the Earl Grey’s spilt tea, or walk on pavements made from millennia-old stones. He’s so concerned with putting out a scientific case that he neglects the human impact of climate change, too. Being told the sea is rising three centimetres a year, or that the planet mustn’t warm by two degrees is hard to understand without knowing if that means countries will turn to deserts, or just that chilly November nights will be a smidgen more bearable.
The substance of the first part of his lecture is pretty undeniable. But he rests on the authority it brings him to sketch the world's responses to climate change in rather less masterful or precise tones. He rushes through a survey of the targets various countries have put in place, and talks vaguely about the need for engineers – the role of the audience here is only to witness and understand, not to be part of a solution.
Director Katie Mitchell uses all the equipment of both kinds of theatre – plays and lectures – to corral an audience into paying attention. But this utter lack of a rallying cry makes the piece feel like a dispiriting slump into well-upholstered seats. We're never asked to examine or criticise our own actions and get uncomfortable about our individual choices. Or, more vitally, to question the capitalist system that's told us that unlimited electricity is a human right as natural as the air or (rising) waters.
Rapley concludes that science doesn't give us the answers – as though science will have nothing to do with finding new energy sources, or was completely innocent in our discovery of all these exciting new ways to exploit carbon and electricity. Our eco-system is in a bad way – but like tenants with a broken boiler, this disempowering piece leaves us shivering and waiting for the engineers to sort it out.