Three articles published over the course of the last week, by The Guardian UK, have caught my attention. The first, a review by veteran theatre critic Michael Billington, about a ‘play’ called 2071. I use the inverted commas advisedly at this point, as the piece has one actor, a scientist called Chris Rapley, who spends 70 minutes talking to the audience about climate change. Some might, and indeed have, called it a lecture, nothing more.
In his review, 2071 – urgent call for the greatest collective action in history, Billington argues otherwise:
Some will argue this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays. And Katie Mitchell, who directed both this show and Ten Billion, realises that the eye needs to be satisfied as well as the ear. Rapley sits in a chair and, without notes, talks to the audience with an astonishing calm and command of facts for 75 minutes. Meanwhile Chloe Lamford’s design presents us with swirling video images behind him that illustrate Rapley’s arguments and have a strange beauty of their own.
The play is being staged at The Royal Court in London under the directorship of Katie Mitchell, who did a similar staging two years ago with a piece entitled Ten Billion where scientist Stephen Emmott (below) spoke about global over-population and its consequences. In fact Ten Billion was given the number 10 spot in the best plays of the year, according to one newspaper.
In this podcast from the Royal Court Duncan Macmillan (co-writer), Mitchell (director) and Rapley (speaking as scientist, co-writer and performer) talk to literary manager Christopher Campbell about the play.
I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether the classification as theatre is a correct one. Mitchell and Macmillan talk further, in the second of the articles I referred to earlier, about their reasons and the processes behind verbatim theatre of this kind. Climate change play 2071 aims to make data dramatic is written by Stephanie Merritt:
“As a dramatist, I’m interested in working with text in a different way,” Macmillan explains, when I meet them during a break in rehearsals at their south London studio. “There was the formal challenge of how to express Chris’s science, and what we could bring to him as theatre-makers – not just with a different audience for those issues, but in terms of technique and how to structure the material. For example, if Chris is writing a scientific paper or delivering an academic lecture, the convention is that you begin with your finding and go on to explain it. But that’s like Hamlet avenging his father’s death in the first five minutes. The simultaneous challenge we’ve had is how to take the anger and emotion out of the issue and at the same time make the data dramatically compelling to listen to.”
The subject matter is undoubtedly emotive, but more so political and therefore ripe for the theatre – even if it is a difficult subject to stage.
I am sure that it is no coincidence that on the same day Billington’s review for 2017 was published, he also wrote a rallying piece entitled Speaking truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre in which he talks about the resurgence of political theatre on the British stage at the moment, 2017 included. You can read the article yourself, but I’ll finish this post with his final paragraph which says much about the theatre I was brought up with, educated by and in which I believe passionately.
It is also something that seems part of our native bloodstream. Some years ago I was invited to take part in an international discussion of political theatre organised by the British Council in Santiago. After I had talked about the British theatre’s oppositional tradition, two French delegates treated my remarks with polite condescension. They observed that someone had recently staged a play in Paris about President Bush but that it had excited little interest. As we talked, I realised we were arguing from different premises. For my French colleagues, theatre was primarily an aesthetic discipline and something apart from life. From my entrenched Anglo-Saxon perspective, it was a vital part of life; and that inevitably embraces politics. I remain convinced to this day that among British theatre’s greatest strengths are its readiness to put our society under the microscope and its willingness to speak truth to power.