Arts review: Greenland

A climate-change play at the National fails to either inform or entertain Graham Farmelo despite the cast’s commitment

February 17, 2011

In this month’s Princeton Magazine, the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson resumes his attack on the climate-change orthodoxy.

“I speak as a citizen not as a scientist, but I think I know a rip-off when I see one,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “Lots of people have made a profession out of global warming.”

These are the kind of comments that get right up the noses of climatologists and activists who argue that climate change, caused mainly by human activities, is perhaps the most pressing challenge facing humanity. This is now the view of the overwhelming majority of professionals, although some quarters of the media deny that there is any consensus, continually drawing attention to disagreements among experts. Many scientists are now concerned that misrepresentations in the media have seriously eroded the public’s trust in their work and that the consequences could be disastrous.

This huge theme has caught the attention of the National Theatre’s director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, always quick to demonstrate that the National is as on the ball as the hippest fringe outfit. Since he took over in 2003, the theatre has presented quite a few plays successfully tackling contemporary issues, several of them written by David Hare, including Stuff Happens, about the events leading up to the most recent Iraq War, and The Permanent Way, about the privatisation of the British railway system.

Over the past few decades, playwrights have had some palpable successes featuring scientific ideas in their work, notably Tom Stoppard in Arcadia and Michael Frayn in Copenhagen, both first presented at the National (scholar Kirsten Shepherd-Barr reviews the genre in her 2006 book Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen). But I think it fair to say that, except in the most expert hands, science tends to resist inclusion in theatre. Apart from the jargon problem, the writer’s greatest challenge is to find non-patronising ways of getting over unfamiliar, subtle ideas while ensuring that audiences are entertained.

Climate change presents a special challenge. This science of the Earth’s atmosphere, a hugely complex system, is demanding and has many uncertainties that often make hard-and-fast predictions difficult. A former insider in the BBC told me recently that climatology was regarded as boring by news editors until a few years ago, when it became the subject they most wanted to hear about. Across the media, attitudes to climate change vary widely: some commentators warn that we are heading for disaster, others regard climate change as just another apocalyptic scare. Whatever one thinks, this is not the obvious material for a good night out.

Undeterred, Hytner decided that it was time for the National Theatre to address the topic. He could have revived Steve Waters’ fine double bill The Contingency Plan, first staged in 2009 at London’s Bush Theatre, but chose instead to commission Greenland, by no fewer than four authors - Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne. The play was the subject of an enlightening platform discussion in early February, ably chaired by an associate director (literary) of the National, Sebastian Born, who described the play as “an incredibly layered piece of work”.

It was plain from this conversation that the authors had done a lot of research and worked hard with the cast to deliver Hytner’s vision of doing justice to all aspects of climate change - the science, the economics, the politics and so on. For Buffini, who was considering working on a climate-change play before she talked with Hytner, working on Greenland has apparently changed her life, as she has come to terms with the implications of “this great crisis”.

I attended the platform discussion the night after I saw the play and was curious to see whether the playwrights had any idea of the sheer size of the turkey they had produced. So far as I could see, they were still so high on the joy of its conception and delivery that they seemed to be unaware. Perhaps it was just as well.

Even before a performance of Greenland begins, its tone is clear: the director uses the safety curtain as a screen on which to project quotes from a range of experts and commentators (including at least one sceptic), none of whom says anything surprising. After the curtain goes up, it is soon clear that we are in for just the kind of evening Hytner wanted to avoid - didactic dialogue, a dull narrative and stale in its approach. Its most memorable character is a polar bear.

Greenland is not so much a play as a series of interconnected vignettes, an earnest lecture masquerading as a narrative patchwork. One of the stories focuses on a young climate-change activist having trouble explaining herself to her unsympathetic parents, another features a couple agonising about the prospect of bringing another child into the world. The fiasco of the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen is the nearest thing the evening has to a climax.

The writers would have done well to have followed George Bernard Shaw’s example in giving many of his best lines to characters whose ideas he despises. Instead, we are hectored by politically correct ciphers who spend two hours telling us nothing we didn’t already know. The play is much less successful than the movie An Inconvenient Truth, featuring Al Gore, which at least had the virtue of presenting material that was, for many people, new. It also depicted the remarkable transformation of a plank of wood into something resembling a human being.

When Greenland audience members emerge from the auditorium into the foyer, they find themselves invited to participate in a “Talkaoke”, in which a jaunty MC encourages them to talk into microphones about their reactions to the play. This toe-curling innovation is the theatrical equivalent of the public service announcements the BBC often features after harrowing episodes of EastEnders. It is hard to imagine that Hytner would have allowed this kind of thing after his current, glorious production of Hamlet (“If you’re of thoughtful disposition and have been affected by patricide…”).

Throughout the play, I found myself longing for some real drama to chew on. How wonderful it would have been for the character of Freeman Dyson to storm on to the stage and challenge the views of everyone in sight. He would probably have told them about his recent trip to Greenland, where he found the locals delighted with their warmer climate and increased tourism. Such counter-orthodoxy would have annoyed a lot of people but brought some welcome excitement to the proceedings, and given us a human being to be interested in.

Greenland ends with a bravura piece of staging, but that was not enough to atone for the tedium that preceded it. To be fair, I left the theatre uplifted by the commitment of the actors, the perseverance of the director Bijan Sheibani and the resourcefulness of the designer Bunny Christie. All of them had tried gamely, if unsuccessfully, to breathe life into a stillborn script. Hats off to the actors, too, for doing so much to make the evening bearable.

I suspect that the project hit trouble from the moment Hytner agreed that a multi-author collective could write the play, and was then doomed when the writers’ passion blinded them to their absolute obligation to keep us entertained.

Greenland is destined to be remembered, I fear, as a classic example of how not to put science on the stage.

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