Resilience, one of the two plays that form The Contingency Plan by Steve Waters
Given that theatre presents itself as a form that is profoundly engaged in the politics of the present, that we’re a country that produced David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton and Harold Pinter, why has there been so little theatre about the most central political issue of the time?
Last night I was at one of the events put on by the Cultures of Climate Change group at the University of Cambridge; Time To Act: The Theatre of Climate Change. The blogger/journalist Robert Butler was interviewing playwright Steve Waters about his play The Contingency Plan. The Contingency Plan at The Bush Theatre earlier this year was the first time someone has pulled off a really intelligent piece of theatre about climate change. Even thecritics agreed. Set in the very near future, it involves events – personal and political – leading up at a major storm surge that appears to be about to flood a significant section of the East Anglian coast. (Rob mentioned a great moment at the press night for the play when the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer turned to him at the interval and said, aghast, “Robert, tell me all this isn’t true?” Robert had to break the news to him).
Waters made the point that he was initially taken aback that no one else had written a play that dealt directly and successfully with the subject. He also became very conscious at the time of writing that the British theatre establishment wasn’t really looking a play on the topic.
Partly this is because theatre acknowleges something we all understand. The complex, slowly unfolding narrative of climate change is one that’s incredibly inconvenient for artists. It is not, we tend to assume, particularly dramatic in itself. Robert Butler discussed this in a review ofThe Contingency Plan in Intelligent Life magazine earlier this year:
Climate change is a difficult subject for dramatists. Three years ago Caryl Churchill, a playwright, introduced a talk by two leading environmental scientists by stressing that their work raises an essential dramatic problem: one of distance.To transport science to the stage, a playwright must not only clarify complicated ideas for laypeople, but also evoke the tension of cause and effect. The problem with climate change is that what happens in one place often ends up affecting people in an entirely different place, and at a remote time. The two worlds can seem unrelated. Where’s the catalyst for drama?
As Butler went on to say, Waters succeeds in closing that gap by a having two plays within the single work – and as Peter Gingold of Tippingpoint mentioned on the way out, by being very clever indeed. Having written it though, Waters is also aware that the UK theatre establishment was probably only looking for one play on climate change.
In response to that thought Butler mentioned a discussion he’d heard on Radio 4’s The World Tonight the night before, in which Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, said we have made life difficult for ourselves by the way we’ve approached the issue of climate change:
One of the arguments I make about Copenhagen, says Hulme, is that we’ve stitched together so many concerns – quite serious and real concerns – under one umbrella [namely, the reduction of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere]. It’s a bit like the Rubik’s Cube that came out some years ago. There are so many different combinations that I could never solve it. And this is what we’ve created with Climate Change. A Rubik’s Cube that we can’t solve. Whereas if we begin to tease out the various elements of the problem – the problems of development, the problems of adaptation, the problems of short-lived greenhouse gasses like methane or black soot, separate those out from the problems of long-lived CO2, we could find a much easier set of pathways.
It was a great discussion; Butler did a brilliant job of throwing new thoughts into the ring for Waters to bat back. I’m still trying to work out whether I agree with what Hume says as a political way to approach climate change, but artistically that makes a lot of sense. Even if , hypothetically speaking, Steve Waters has written THE play about climate change, there is huge scope still to pull the Rubik’s Cube apart to allow us to make profounder sense of climate change.
Thanks to Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith for the event.
Steve mentioned that the The Contingency Plan will be aired by the BBC on Dec 13 to coincide with COP15. I’ll keep you posted with the details.