Monday 18 December 2017

Stage: Time for an eco-conscious theatre that puts environment centre stage?

Feeling the buzz: the environmentally aware musical Bees! was a hit with children. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Feeling the buzz: the environmentally aware musical Bees! was a hit with children. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Chris McCormack

'Art, everybody knows, completes what nature is unable to finish." By that, Aristotle meant that an individual's potential for change can be shown as brought to realisation through art. It would be nice if he was referring to 'nature' as the phenomena of the physical world, its plant-life and animals, now depressingly at risk.

In theatre, we've often seen the physical world thrown out of whack. Sophocles's Oedipus Rex begins with the ancient Greek city Thebes ravaged by a plague, an act of divine retribution, we learn, because the previous king's murderer remains uncaught. Greek audiences, circa 426 BC, viewed environmental disturbance no less than an act of the god Apollo.

Really, is the mighty storm that faces off with Shakespeare's King Lear any more than a character device? When the king, shook by his daughters' revolt, runs out to meet the tempest, it seems a conveniently timed reflection of his own madness. No further evidence was needed in the Abbey Theatre's 2013 production, when Owen Roe's Lear surprisingly ascended onto an elevated platform for the chaotic scene, that the monarch, in fact, is the storm.

History has shown that playwrights often pass themselves off as climate specialists. Hot spells are vividly a part of Tennessee Williams' work, where climbing temperatures push characters' unexpressed desires to breaking point. More recently, Meadhbh McHugh's 2016 play about duelling sisters, Helen and I, was set during a heatwave, finally giving way to cleansing rainfall at the end.

But as worldly temperatures and extinction rates reach new records, isn't it time to think ethically about representations of the physical world in theatre? The poet William Wordsworth could only summarise nature in limited measure: "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply infused, / Whose dwelling is … the blue sky, and in the mind of man". But such lines are a good reminder that art should approach the physical world as if humanity were complicit in its state of being, not the other way around.

A well-timed intervention can be traced to Japan. In 2011, the country was brought to the brink of environmental catastrophe when nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant went into meltdown. Japanese national feeling, urged on by slogans such as 'We mourn together with the afflicted', accepted national unity as a priority. A hard, critical stance on the incident from the public, however, was widely invisible.

Thirteen months later, playwright Toshiki Okada presented a swift response for his theatre company Chelfitsch with the play Genzaichi (Current Location). This parable of the Fukushima incident shows residents of an unnamed village alarmed by a bizarre blue cloud that has arrived in the sky. A messenger interprets the phenomenon as an old prophecy, signalling the obliteration of the village. But others fear that speaking out would seal their exclusion from society, and remain aggressively resistant to the warning. Passivity, in Okada's play, is more dangerous than activism.

Current Location is already well travelled. In 2014, the Bristol-based company FellSwoop presented a solid adaptation by director Bertrand Lesca and dramaturg Josh Goulding. The play's non-descript setting, populated by actors speaking in English accents, became strikingly resonant for a new locale.

Understandably, some playmakers might want their eco-criticism more implicit than explicit. In 2011, Duncan Macmillan's two-hander Lungs (proving its name, in a breathlessly fast staging by English company Paines Plough) portrayed a couple wanting to have a child. In making their decision, a woman considers the consequences of introducing a new human to the planet, totalling a carbon footprint of 10,000 tonnes of CO2: "That's the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I'd be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower".

In 2011, Lyn Garder, a critic for The Guardian, observed that theatre in the UK has seen a growing engagement with climate change. In Ireland, the engagement has only been seen in dribs and drabs. That's not to say those approaches haven't been hard-fought. In 2015, Louise White's offsite piece Mother You offered a candid look at community effort based on the Abbeyleix Bog Project in Laois - a conservation venture to protect local bogland from property development. By staging it inside an unused commercial property in Dublin's Smithfield Square, White's production made an eloquent case for a community's right to recreational space.

It's also hard to deny the activist zeal of Mark Doherty's BEES!, a musical for young audiences, staged with aplomb by WillFredd Theatre in 2015. This immensely fun tale about a late-hatching bee's quest to catch up with her swarm worked to dispel fears about the insects, now dwindling in numbers, and emphasised their pivotal role in pollination and its far-reaching effects.

There are more reasons to remain hopeful that the industry will continue searching for strategies to deal with encroaching environmental disaster. Dublin Theatre Festival and Theatre Forum have organised an upcoming public talk with Ruth Little, a dramaturg with Cape Farewell - the international project galvanising artistic responses to climate change. It's a good start.

Signs of the disintegrating physical world have long fallen on deaf ears. Artists, however, are extremely well placed to spin those signs into something that can stir. That stands to put a new take on an old idea. Art may yet complete what nature is unable to finish.

A public interview with Ruth Little takes place in Festival House, Templebar on Monday at 5pm. Spaces can be reserved at theatreforum.ie

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