Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children imagines what it would be like, if an all-consuming ecological disaster were to strike today. Instead of the pandemonium surrounding earthquakes and tsunamis, we see an aftermath involving three scientists who are partly responsible for the catastrophe. It is a story about technology, concerned with the way inhabitants of the developed world are failing to find harmony with our greater environment. Hazel, Robin and Rose are retirees approaching seventy years of age, but their work in nuclear power is an enduring legacy that has wreaked havoc to all of humankind.
The play takes on some of the most important themes of our times, not only in its bold discussions of climate change, but also with its ultramodern perspectives on ageing and death. Explored with remarkable sophistication, Kirkwood’s ideas are edgy yet truthful, often confrontational in their dissection of responsibility and attribution of blame, as they pertain to the current state of our planet. Diligently crafted to provoke thought and to elicit benevolent responses, The Children tackles pressing issues with intelligence and splendid inventiveness. It is a gripping work, surprisingly entertaining and no question it is ultimately most valuable for its political statements.
Set inside a humble cottage (designed with minimal fuss by Elizabeth Gadsby), the action begins deceptively mundane as its three characters skirt the issue, trying to be cordial company, before a sense of security arrives that will allow floodgates to open. Everything feels precarious, even before the audience is let in on the severity of their situation. In charge of this Australian première production (co-produced by and first seen at Melbourne Theatre Company) Director Sarah Goodes teases with an exquisite balance of the austere, banal and lighthearted aspects of the story. Tensions ebb and flow, however, we are captivated by the extraordinary stakes of the fictional tale and how they feel so immediately, and terrifyingly, applicable to our real lives.
Actor Pamela Rabe plays Hazel, a woman straining under delusions, surviving on a despairing combination of determination and feeble crutches. It is a wonderfully humorous performance, dark and sensitive, cleverly conveying the fragility of existence under the mercy of indomitable forces. Rose, performed by Sarah Peirse, appears out of the blue, complete with bleeding nose, to shake us into reality. A charismatic and powerful mouthpiece for the play’s central ideology, Peirse is eminently compelling and deeply persuasive. Robin is the thorn among the roses, entrusted with the plot’s more sentimental sections. William Zappa brings authenticity and warmth, and occasional levity to what is essentially a caustic evaluation of our nature.
Our experts work ceaselessly to extend our lives, to have us live longer and more voraciously than ever before. We keep finding greater ways to devour the world, to satisfy an insatiable and ever-escalating list of wants, in a narcissistic experience that forever thinks of human as supreme. We plunder remorseless, even when faced with irrefutable evidence of our self-destruction, as though carnage can only be accepted as inevitable. We persist in a race that feels too far gone to accommodate any idea of reversion. In The Children, characters figure out the best way to live by weighing between options of death. We can only bear witness to their calamity and hope to do better.