I shouldn’t be here, and neither should you. Chris Rapley shouldn’t be here, speaking to us, the giant projectors pouring waves of jumping graphics onto the backdrop shouldn’t be running, and Katie Mitchell should never have taken all those tubes across London to direct this dry and gloomy lecture. Almost every action in the chain of events between the show’s concept forming and our presence in the theatre has pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, quietly but inexorably dooming our own futures, and those of our children.
Though, as Rapley points out, science cannot offer judgements on the morality of an action, or on its value. Some carbon-producing activities may be well worth the carbon, others use it unwisely, or waste it altogether. It’s the purpose of other spheres to make these adjudications – art presumably among them – and unfortunately Mitchell and MacMillan’s latest collaboration makes a very poor case for its carbon costs. It’s a waste of time, both the time you spend in the theatre watching it, and as Rapley makes intimidatingly clear, of the time we have left as a species living in the relative comfort of the Holocene era.
Rapley sits to the right of a deep and dark corridor, which fills with cool, crisp projections, giving the stage the appearance of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who title sequence, and delivers a dust-dry but relatively clear and convincing lecture on the projected future of the planet. It begins with his own introduction into the world of the Antarctic and the cryosphere, the various perspectives his illustrious career have provided him with, and the basic outline of the planet’s construction and processes. Later we move into the history of climate science, the accretion of evidence from processes of extraordinary complexity that despite the factual truth of pre-existing fluctuations in global temperature and CO2 density, something has genuinely gone awry since the birth of the industrial revolution. Something which Western governments have been slow and reluctant to correct, and which may, in any case, be virtually beyond correction.
It’s important information. It’s not the sort of thing that you see in the theatre very often (said in the voice of a man who’s just been mildly diverted by, say, a dog balancing on a ball), and there’s a sense in which placing it centre-stage at the Royal Court is itself a vital political statement. But isn’t 95% of the audience at the Court at least fairly aware of and confident in climate change anyway? The facts may be presented in a new order, and with a new sense of crushing inevitability, but the thesis is a familiar one. 2071 brings something unusual to theatre (the monotonal tedium of a lecture), but theatre has brought next to nothing to it. Poor Rapley has a hell of a time remembering and forming his words, and looks tremendously uncomfortable almost throughout. You can’t call it TED talk theatre, because nobody in their right mind would prepare such a dramatically inert TED talk.
The crux of the problem is that in this instance the act of designating this work a piece of theatre, or of placing it within a context in which theatre is the norm, has fatally undermined its utility as anything else. The video design by Luke Halls is elegant rather than informative: time and time again you pine for a little red arrow or a laser pointer to indicate which spike on the chart Rapley is referring to, or even a caption to elucidate the Windows Media Player Visualizer fug.
Worse, through a deadly combination of content and form, 2071 engenders a keen sense of futility above and beyond anything else. Its call for action is a whimper in the face of a vast and barely-knowable bleakness; its targets feel hopelessly out of reach. Its dramatic arc concludes with the revelation that Rapley’s own granddaughter will, when she reaches his own current age, still be breathing the carbon dioxide released by our trip to the theatre tonight. And that by then it will already be far too late to save the planet from ecological disaster.
The only glimmer of hope against the handsome polished blackness of this production is Rapley’s faith in the engineers of the future to radically alter our terms of engagement with the energy question. To shatter his gloomy projections with a leap forward into the currently unreachable. It’s actually a reasonable and even hopeful sentiment, but here it gapes like a chasm.
What it all needs so desperately is some sense of disruption or even presence from Mitchell. Turn up the music! Turn off the video! Turn on Chris Rapley! Anything, anything, anything to break the sense of gloomy autocue inertia that engulfs the Jerwood Downstairs like the certainty of our final end.