Gus Mitchell talks about the environmental, political fuck-ups and drum n’ bass concept albums with one of the performers currently in the Pleasance Theatre’s Kill Climate Deniers.
A militant group of environmental activists storm Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra, during a Fleetwood Mac concert. They demand that their government immediately cease all carbon emission, coal exporting, and so on – or they will start executing their 1,700 hostages.
In the times we live in, you might put money on something like this happening before too long. But for the moment, it’s the central plot – for want of a better word – for the sprawling Russian dolls of a project that is Kill Climate Deniers, playing at the Islington’s Pleasance Theatre through June.
This is the basic story that Australian theatre artist David Finnigan was working to stage in 2015 when a group of conservative bloggers and online-dwellers took public issue with the $19,000 grant he had received from the ATC government to develop the project. Needless to say, the prospect of a piece of publicly-funded performance dubbed (however satirically) ‘Kill Climate Deniers’ wasn’t going to sit well. ‘How about, ‘Kill David Finnigan?’ ran a depressingly inevitable trigger-response from one keyboard warrior.
The minute I start chatting to cast member Nathan Coenen about it, his raw passion for the project oozes out. As he elaborates, Finnigan’s constantly-evolving concept has become: “this play where you still have that core story of justifiably angry activists gone wild, but David has put in a lot of the journey of the play since 2015, when he came up against a lot of these different obstacles.” The original production was cancelled, and funding withdrawn. An undaunted Finnigan continued to develop the project in other ways, first as a concept album driven by 80s and 90s drum n’ bass and club music, with a bizarre immersive experience-walking tour of the Australian parliament, and continued to bloom into radio play, short film, book and various live shows and productions in Australia.
It sounds like a double-act – a tightwire act in theatre making. In Australia, Finnigan is part of a collective called Boho, turning complicated and pressing concepts from climate science and turning them into performance pieces, to hopefully be seen by those with their fingers on the strings of power which will determine all of our lives in the coming decades. He got sick of doing that – hence his frustration, with, as Coenen puts it, the original script being a “way to vent all his frustration. He got so fed up with it that he just went ‘screw all this, I just want to go mental on the page’… you can feel, in the writing of that section of the play, David just pouring it all out.”
On the other hand, a clear need to bridge boundaries and, above all, communicate with other sides and, however frustrating (or scientifically incorrect) other ‘opinions’, are, they are just as, if not more important for Finnigan, and clearly for the cast in the process of making a new version. The very title of the play and the way it unfolds, as Coenen describes it, asks whether the act of singling out people in such a way is in fact, however tempting, the final way to make progress. “It creates this really interesting dichotomy”, he says, “between left and right, and do we have a responsibility not just to attack each other but also to listen to each other.”
The entire cast of Kill Climate Deniers hails from Australia, and for Coenen “the opportunity to work on an Australian play” at a time of such public battles over the future of the country – and specifically its climate policy – has been a gift. A recent victory for ruling Coalition was the stunning, and for many devastating, result of an election cycle truly dominated for the first time by the climate debate. Among a litany of crises are the worst Australian drought in a century, over a million fish dying in the Murray Darling River Systems, half a million cattle dead in Queensland flooding, and bushfires destroying virgin rainforests. This is not to mention the knife-edge fate of the Great Barrier Reef, still further threatened by new coal exploration projects. After yet another victory for the forces of feet-dragging over the climate emergency, this – along with further adverse effects and the costs that go with them – look far more likely in the decade ahead. “When that election result came out, it made that day of rehearsals very resonant,” Coenen acknowledges. “Particularly just the division, realising there are so many schisms between left-thinkers and right-thinkers, which Australia is really, really affected by right now. Even more so than the UK – and the UK’s not in a great place.”
The subject matter and times are as serious and timely as could be. Coenen describes himself as so passionate about the environment that he can “get a little too doomsday about it”. But what seems different and vital about Kill Climate Deniers, is that it humanises and democratises the issues, and, “in a good old-fashioned Aussie way”, asks the audience to laugh at the absurdity of it all. “Then,” as he puts it, “come down after the laughter, and then be like ‘let’s take this seriously’. If you can bring people into an audience and go, ‘hey: this is ridiculous! Come and have an insane journey with us’ and then maybe by the end of the play maybe hit them in the stomach with some gravitas, then you might get people thinking about it a bit more openly, a bit more clearly, when they leave the room.”
As the conversation winds down, we both ponder the relative paucity of plays (and any other type of media come to think of it: films, TV, pop music, you name it) that even attempts to deal with what is without a doubt the defining crisis and moral issue of our time – most likely of all human history. Surely this is what art is made for. We both agree on one thing for certain though, as Coenen sums it up: “I think that it’s only in that way when you stop the tribalism and when some actual meaningful change can occur, and there’s no better way for that to happen than laughing your ass off for 90 minutes.”
Kill Climate Deniers is playing until 28 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Pleasance Theatre website.