Alanna Mitchell might call herself a ‘non-actor’, but she is undoubtedly a gifted storyteller. In her lecture-cum-performance Sea Sick, she diagnoses the current state of the oceans. She says they are the ‘switch of life’, the key to existence on earth. Her words and turns of phrase linger in the air, fusing meaning to the scientific facts that underpin her vivid pronouncement:
Warm. Breathless. Sour.
It’s no surprise that Mitchell is an award-winning journalist; Sea Sick is beautifully written and structured like a long-form feature. Mitchell recounts her interviews and meetings with esteemed scientists to methodically expand each adjectival verdict: Warm because of fossil fuels producing too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; Breathless because of ocean-destined fertilizers creating algal blooms which deplete oxygen levels in the water column; Sour because of carbon dioxide diffusing into the water and producing carbonic acid.
These aren’t easy concepts to elucidate to an audience (not least because of the harrowing implications they present), but Mitchell does so meticulously, using the history of science, visual demonstrations, fortifying anecdotes, and a well-crafted narrative arch. Almost like a glacier, Sea Sick steadily and robustly ploughs through the vast ecosystem that is the current discourse on climate change, and indelibly transforms the landscape which came before.
Theatrically, Sea Sick is not unlike a TED Talk. Mitchell stands alone amidst a general wash, a chalkboard behind her, and a glass of water on a table. And yet, director Franco Boni adds subtle theatrical gestures to enrich Mitchell’s monologue. Boni nicely underscores pauses in Mitchell’s script with a folk-rock soundtrack and soft changes in lighting. These moments act like line dashes in an essay, giving the audience a chance to breathe, to reflect, to take it all in. They are more effective than the other sporadic lighting transitions, designed to simulate moments within Mitchell’s narrative, but occasionally distract from her charming delivery.
Still, Sea Sick is an absorbing and important show that’s particularly refreshing at the Fringe. Mitchell is soft spoken, authoritative, and passionate about sharing her subject matter. So passionate, in fact, that she includes a discussion with the audience afterwards where she responds to questions about the show.
To explain her insatiable and infectious curiosity, she harkens back to her childhood on the Canadian prairies: her scientist father taught her the value of knowledge, her artist mother how to make meaning, and the ‘remorseless light’ of Saskatchewan skies what infinite expanse can look like. She encounters that expanse once again, 3,000 feet below sea level, and realises the seismic impact of the story she is telling.
Yes, the viewpoint is pretty bleak: a toxic cocktail which once lead to the largest mass extinction in the planet’s history could very well lead to another (what would be only the sixth on our earth’s timeline). While that history seems so large, and we seem in comparison so insignificant, what’s terrifying is the haunting and permeating understanding that we are the very reason this crisis is currently facing our planet.
And that’s why Mitchell weaves together her personal journey –a journey that took three years and 13 voyages across the world — with a global story about our oceans. The story of global warming is, for everyone, a personal one. It surges forth when we purchase flights, when we visit the supermarket, when our politicians make promises committing to change while not changing anything. We, like Mitchell, directly affect and are affected by the story.
But Mitchell’s Sea Sick powerfully proposes that the personal element to this story ‘still in play’ might also unveil solutions to the climate crisis. We have the technology to solve the problem, she says (though frustratingly doesn’t go into much detail), but first we must forgive ourselves in order to move forward. Yes, the story can be hard to hear, but Sea Sick convincingly argues that to hear the story completely is to forgive ourselves, and to understand our agency, our role, and ourselves as actors.
Sea Sick is on at Canada Hub at 12.30pm, until 25th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More tickets and info here.