Review: Ten Billion

The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre is, much like the National Theatre’s Cottesloes Theatre, a space that offers experimentation to limited audiences. Hidden at the top of the building, you’re likely to see new plays by emerging playwrights, or plays that attempt to test new methods for putting forth their message – be it in style or form – presented to the hundred odd audience it holds.

In Ten Billion, a collaboration between scientist Stephen Emmott and director Katie Mitchell, it is not so much a play that is presented but a performance lecture, with Emmott delivering his staggeringly depressing and scientific truth that as a planet, Earth, and us as its inhabitants, are screwed for the future. It is a piece that offers Emmott a platform to make it categorically known that science has shown we are in danger, and that action of colossal scale is needed to create a U-turn on climate change and global economics.

Ten Billion is an urgent message from the scientific world, but as a piece of theatre it is hard to gauge its purpose. Let me try to explain. Emmott is a scientist, and as he admits in the opening of the performance, he is no actor. He takes cues from his laptop and presents to the audience a lecture on the changes of our ecosystem and its devastating outcomes. Mitchell, as a director and theatre maker, has brought her usual creative team (59 Productions for projections, lighting by Jon Clark, music composed by Paul Clark and Gareth Fry as the sound designer) and replicated Emmott’s Cambridge based office in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs through Giles Cadle’s design. There is little in the way of theatrics aside from projections to assist explanations, making it appear that Mitchell’s role is more as the artist bringing together the elements to put onto stage than a director instructing her actor. Emmott’s lecture is of utmost importance, because he delivers the truth, something that we never truly like to hear, but aside from the replica of his office and his delivery of this lecture placed on a stage at the Royal Court Theatre, it doesn’t feel like theatre. That’s not to say it’s not important or needed, but it’s hard to judge it upon it’s theatrical merits.

As a performance lecture, we are treated to sixty minutes of being informed that the planet has reached breaking point. That through the billions of people that inhabit Earth, and through our various revolutions and constant demand of food, production and housing, our actions are destroying the world. We’re perhaps sick of hearing about climate change and the devastating facts about icecaps melting and forests shrinking, but to be taken through these actions and have them put into perspective by Emmott makes the reality far more tangible, and yet, so far away from us helping. If we are to survive as a species on this planet, we need to do more than just turn off light bulbs and reuse carrier bags – we need radical behavior changes that put climate change at the forefront of every action and decision we undertake for the next hundred and more years.

Emmott likens the situation to an asteroid that is hurtling towards Earth on a collision course; the only way to stop it is to put 50% of our scientists onto figuring out how to stop it hitting us and 50% of scientists on developing plans for our survival should it hit us. Only through this (perhaps extreme) example would governments across the world co-operate to make change in order to survive. The only problem is that in reality Earth is the asteroid, and we’re already hurtling on a collision course. Only without us truly feeling like we’re in danger we’re willing to ignore it.

Through the boom in the global population through revolution in agriculture and transport, Emmott delivers a timeline of events that has caused us to reach this point. He offers solutions too, but each one seems too late, too unrealistic. We could be optimistic, that we have survived so far, and that we might just survive again, but it’s clear that Emmott doesn’t believe this. His parting words are simple: “we’re fucked”.

As a collaboration, it is a curious piece that brings an important message from a leading scientist onto the theatrical stage. With Mitchell you’d expect more in terms of theatrics, but perhaps the very nature of this collaboration is enough to act as experimentation for theatre. It’s an honest and direct delivery, with subtle colouring by Mitchell and her team, and whilst it doesn’t feel like theatre, perhaps it holds all the ingredients: there is conflict, a character, a dramatic and poignant ending, and it certainly leaves you wanting to change something in the world. An urgent message, delivered and received, now we just need to get every world leader to sit and watch it and realise what is actually happening.

Ten Billion is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 11th August. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website. Photography by Stephen Cummiskey