Oil, Ella Hickson’s new play at the Almeida, begins in a bitingly cold Cornwall in 1889 when a farming family are exposed to the epoch-changing potential of kerosene for the first time. Skipping across history and continents, it closes back in the West Country 150 years later in an energy-rationed, Chinese-dominated future at the end of the age of oil.
The vast geographical and historical scope of this multilingual play, which has taken six years to write, reflects the difficulty of exploring a substance which is the common ingredient behind everything from cups to condoms. Scenes set in the Middle East present the distribution and potential scarcity of oil as leading to political and ethical problems which are, fittingly, sticky and combustible. No one, including the audience, is allowed to leave with their hands clean.
Oil is the latest example of theatre’s evolving attempts to tackle pressing questions around the environment, natural resources, and humanity’s future. It is a difficult task because this involves thinking not only about humans, but about technologies, species, substances, and ecosystems. Moreover, to explore the implications of our environmental concerns, it is often necessary to imagine as-yet-undetermined future societies. It is a “formal challenge of how we tell the size of the stories we need to tell,” says Hickson.
In the past decade, especially, there has been a wide range of attempts to rise to this challenge. There have been the plays which seek to educate with clear, scientific facts. Or those that seek to alarm with apocalyptic scenarios. There have also been plays dwelling on the impact of our day-to-day behaviour on the climate and environmentally aware re-writings of classics.
Then there have been the “immersive” performances like audio-walking-tour-cum-opera And While London Burns, which invites participants to trace the relation between oil and business around the capital. Of course, to do this you’ll need a smartphone which probably contains the mineral coltan, mined at extraordinary human cost – as Adam Brace’s They Drink it in the Congo, the play that preceded Oil at the Almeida, reminded us.
Beyond individual playwrights, whole theatres are now getting involved in environmental activism, nowhere more so than the Royal Court, which has been the source of several new plays tackling environmental issues. This year, these include young playwright Stef Smith’s Human Animals, Alistair McDowall’s post-apocalyptic space horror X, Caryl Churchill’s latest Escaped Alone and Lucy Kirkwood’s tale of energy and catastrophe The Children, which opens next month.
Lucy Davies, the executive director, describes their mission to engage with the environment as part of the Royal Court’s sense of theatre as a “form of social conversation and a form of social change” and tells me how the Royal Court’s engagement plan extends from its artistic programme and educational work to committing to local suppliers for its restaurant and working with the other theatres in the London Theatre Consortium to reduce the sector’s carbon emissions.
The Royal Court has been a pioneer in tackling contemporary issues since its opening-year production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956. However, dealing with the politicized and specialized discussions surrounding climate science is a very particular challenge that can push theatre-makers in new directions.
2014’s 2071 saw UCL scientist Chris Rapley collaborate with playwright Duncan Macmillan and director Katie Mitchell. The resulting production featured Rapley alone on stage discussing climate science. It polarized audiences, some of whom complained that this was merely a lecture. While I thought that that the disquieting music and graphics made the clearly communicated data more urgent, I found it hard to recall the specifics of both the performance and the science once I was out of the theatre, although I have since found the text a useful reference point. I ask Davies whether 2071 indicated a tension between creativity and the ethical need to inform. She says not: “Some critics said ‘this is just a lecture,’ but there were sophisticated aesthetic choices in that work, and so it pushed the art form forward.”
In fact, this wasn’t the first time that the Royal Court staged a dramatized lecture: 2012’s 10 Billion, featuring scientist Stephen Emmott, took a similar form. One of the things that was striking about both is that they give a central role to children. 2071 is the year in which Rapley’s eldest grandchild will be the age that Rapley was when the play was first performed. 10 Billion climaxes with a startlingly bleak statement from a scientist who says that if there was one thing he should do in the face of climate change, it is to “teach my son how to use a gun”.
In play after play about the environment, children feature in the plays as inheritors of radically changed future landscapes, emblems of hope in contrast to a more jaded older generation or – as in the case of another of Duncan Macmillan’s plays, two-hander love story Lungs – the single largest addition to one’s carbon footprint that you could possibly make. (Interestingly, when Mitchell directed Lungs in Berlin, she did it off-grid with the performers on stationary bicycles powering the production.)
What made Lungs effective is that, aside from a few passages, climate change only really takes centre stage in the final moments when the play accelerates from the everyday tribulations that have taken up the bulk of the play – infidelity, parenthood, Ikea – into an apocalyptic future. In doing so Macmillan makes tangible some of the links between the epochal and the everyday necessary for thinking about the intermingling of social, political and ecological forces that will shape the future.
Comparably, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone tips thrillingly back and forth between a conversation in a suburban garden and a series of surreal, poetic monologues comprised of unspecific but half-identifiable political and environmental catastrophes. In making use of the language of apocalypse without depicting it onstage, Churchill avoids reveling in catastrophe, the intellectual laziness of which Hickson is particularly scathing about. “I get so tired of seeing apocalypse capital A, because really it lets us off the hook,” she says. “Over the next 200 years the white theatre-going audiences of London are not the ones that are going to suffer and so there is a weird voyeurism in going to look at wastelands for an hour and a half and feel slightly better about reducing our consumption.”
Writers exploring environmental issues must, of course, avoid hectoring moralizing, but the difficulties they face extend beyond their own talents and the old problem that sometimes, as French writer André Gide put it, “it is with fine sentiments that bad literature is made”. The sheer scale of these issues mean we can get fatigued by the crisis; knowledge of the facts can mutate into cynicism rather than outrage, or engender resigned paralysis in the face of seeming helplessness.
One play that roused me from any fatigue was Smith’s unsettling Human Animals. It explores speciesism and extinction through the lens of a community that descends into violence and repression during an unspecified pandemic. At the time, the production – in particular, one line “people can get used to terrible things, very quickly” – recalibrated and amplified my wretchedness during a week which saw, amongst other things, football fans taunting refugee children, the murder of Jo Cox and Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ billboard. The knowledge that climate change and resource wars will be central to future refugee crises was not something that I picked up in the theatre, but that week, and not for the first time, the theatre brought it home.
“We need hope but it can feel untrue given the nature of the world at the moment,” says Smith. “I feel a constant responsibility in my work to balance hope and despair.” And that’s what the best of these plays do: expand and explore not only our sense of what we human animals are capable of doing to each other but what we might do for each other as well.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.