Blog: Theatre should not talk about climate change

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Theatre is a life-affirming medium that involves people coming together in a social space and sharing experience.

This does not naturally lend itself to climate change, an anti-social subject. It is boring for people (unless you sensationalise it) – it is negative and sad. It produces fear. It is a dramatic scenario, but it fails some kind of authenticity test, for being too real. On stage, it pulls focus worse than a puppy. It is overwhelming, so that if you address climate change in a play, it is a ‘Climate Change Play’. Furthermore, if you address the subject directly, there can be no metaphor. And theatre needs metaphor.

London has seen several plays attempt to address climate change directly. Rupert Goold/Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, a consortium of writers on Greenland, Richard Bean’s satire The Heretic. Some have been successful, and some not. (They also seem to have disappeared, whereas the science didn’t.) Generally, they seem to have behaved like any other theatre. This seems odd, because climate change is not ‘any other’ topic. It is an unsolvable logical dilemma. It is urgent.

Again, this would seem like a good subject for theatre. Theatre likes social issues. It likes to talk about things which are important. It enjoys dialogue, and collective problem solving. Generally, the more pressing the social issue, the better.

I want to put forward the idea that perhaps the tools that theatre-makers have access to today are ineffective at addressing this. Mostly, theatre today, including its teaching, is driven by spectacularism and economics. Spectacularism takes root in design-heavy production, and economics involves profiting through making dramatic arguments that the audience will agree with. These twin drivers are not at all what motivated the great users of the form. Beckett, although sometimes produced in spectacular ways today, is a sad voice. Pinter, likewise, is not at all social. Brecht is a popular writer who at times tried desperately hard to be unpopular.

Just as politicians today looks at the numbers and head with the prevailing winds, so do theatre-makers. But the prevailing winds may change – in fact, if you forgive the metaphor, according to scientists, they will. The key question will be not the one that theatre-makers most fear (‘Where is your career going?’) but instead ‘What did you do?’

Theatre must regain its oppositional territory and its autonomy. In this endeavour, the artist should be brave, because it necessarily involves self-sabotage and sacrifice. This is nothing new – if you want a reminder of self-sabotage, you can re-view Pinter’s speech to accept his Nobel Prize.

It is not that nothing has changed. Things have changed. They have become more extreme, and we no-longer seem to have theatre capable of dissent. We need that back – urgently. And the way to get it back is through refusal.

When it comes to climate change, this involves ‘not talking about it’. Because the natural response to disaster is dialogue. But dialogue is failing. I mean refusal. I mean a rejection. I mean a particular kind of silence. Not to fill the stage with light and colour, but to fill it with a future nothing.

Richard Pettifer’s show End of Species is at The Yard Theatre from 11 – 15 March. 

Photo by Flickr user ItzaFineDay under a Creative Common Licence.