If global warming persists at its current rate and sea levels continue to rise, half of London might be underwater. There are maps available online outlining the potential damage; just type in your postcode and watch your neighbourhood disappear beneath the deluge.
This is just one of the grim facts alluded to throughout Platform’s operatic audio tour And While London Burns, created in 2006 in response to climate change and the complex, ubiquitous oil network that dominates the world’s financial markets. Earlier this week I belatedly traced this tour through the heart of the City, its skyscrapers appropriately garbed in an ominous cloak of fog that was distantly pierced by the Shard, that oddly apocalyptic splinter of steel and glass. Gazing up at buildings that had inexorably sprouted in the six years since the tour’s creation, it was hard to imagine a halt to the onward march of disaster that flooded through my earphones.
But the aim of And While London Burns is not despair. Its end point, or at least the end point that I’m told it would have reached if the audio file hadn’t hit a glitch as I stood awkwardly fiddling with my phone in the drizzle outside Lloyds, is one of action, of hope. Intersecting bleak facts with a deeply human impetus for change, the piece is delicately crafted for maximum emotional impact, making the reality of climate change powerfully felt without ever entirely eradicating an optimistic chink of light. We can still do something.
This immediately brought to mind the contrast with Ten Billion, a piece of theatre that I did not personally see but that was the subject of much conversation around the time it was showing at the Royal Court earlier this year. In essence a lecture given by scientist Stephen Emmott and placed on stage by Katie Mitchell, it was by all accounts an unflinching breakdown of how humanity, as a species, is fucked. In this vision of a future ravaged by environmental catastrophe and over-population, there is nothing to be done.
Although I’m not in any position to make judgements on the respective science behind these two pieces, they do throw up an interesting theatrical tension. Both pieces are, presumably, setting out with the intention of changing our outlook on the world in some way; And While London Burns is explicit about this aim, while it’s difficult to even read about the subject matter of Ten Billion without taking a rather blacker view of the future. The problem and source of tension, however, is the effect of this intended shift in outlook. Stepping out into Sloane Square or between the glass-fronted structures of the City, what do audiences take with them?
In the second of Chris Goode & Company’s Thompson’s Live podcasts, Artsadmin’s Judith Knight mused on just this problem. Is it better, she wondered, for theatre like Ten Billion to leave its audience with hope, however false, than to depart with incapacitating doom? The problem with being told you can do nothing is that it gives you licence to do just that. As Andrew Haydon put it in his review, there’s something “powerful and seductive” – even liberating – about the sheer nihilism of it all. No need to worry about changing our behaviour if it won’t make any difference.
And While London Burns might look our catastrophic future just as squarely in the face, but it also offers the possibility of action. Not only does it retain the promise of a small shred of hope, the very form of this piece of theatre makes it imperative for us to act in order for the piece to work. We are actors, in both the performative and real world senses of the word, made to navigate our way around the busy streets. In principle this necessity of small actions offers us belief in the fact that action on a larger scale is achievable, though in practice the difficulties of winding between human traffic and keeping in step with the audio instructions can be just as much of a obstruction to the piece as the physical obstacles that have sprung up since it was made.
While considering these questions of hope and action, another unlikely comparison presented itself. I was temporarily transported back to Battersea Arts Centre, where I spent Saturday afternoon gleefully exploring the building’s many nooks and crannies as part of interactive children’s show The Good Neighbour, a celebration of imagination, silliness and the capacity of humans to work together. An altogether different proposition, then, to either Ten Billion or And While London Burns.
Yet within the fun and games there is something distilled in this otherwise joyously silly piece of theatre that many more serious shows might take note of. In framing its frolics as an adventure, The Good Neighbour returns to its young participants, already so restricted in so many areas of life, the idea that the possibility of instigating action might lie within their power. Through the underestimated medium of play, it holds up an optimistic vision of human nature in which change is attainable as well as desirable. Unlike the distracting confusion of negotiating the suit-clogged alleyways of the City, a level of performativity that may be active but is more often than not frustrating, the gameplay here produces a sense of triumph and exhilaration.
Whether this exhilaration could be transposed onto a form of activist theatre is another question, and whether this would ultimately make a difference is an even bigger question. The extent to which theatre can inspire genuine political and social change is a well-traversed and still inconclusive debate. But if performance is to provoke action, surely the possibility of agency within the space in which it sets out its arguments is the first building block in the bridge to action beyond that space. To act, we must first believe that we are capable of action.