The polar bear is something of a lumbering paradox; it could kill a man with ease and yet it seems so vulnerable in its whiteness, a vulnerability that has only intensified as its Arctic habitat has come under threat.
For this reason the bear, an animal both threatened and threatening, has come to serve as an easy symbol for the damage climate change seems likely to wreak on the planet, for all the things we stand to lose. So the presence of a polar bear in the National Theatre’s attempt to tackle the suject is not exactly surprising, is in fact pretty predictable, and yet this ursine cameo is handled so delightfully that its predictability is eclipsed.
The appearance of the bear, the work of Blind Summit’s puppet-master Mark Down, creates a moment of awe and wonder amid an otherwise noisy and tangled production. Greenland is issue theatre, or perhaps more correctly, Issue Theatre. It takes the subject of climate change and attempts to graft narrative onto it, to inject dramatic life into it. To do this the National has drafted in four writers: Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne.
The production has a jumbled quality, a franticness, though it eventually becomes possible to tease out a number of distinct narrative strands: a young boy with a passion for geography grows up to lead an isolated life studying sea birds in the Arctic Circle; a young girl, much to her parents’ bafflement and dismay, drops out of college to become an activist; the most developed strand, set in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, involves an ambitious political adviser and her burgeoning relationship with a scientist whose projected climate models present a bleak picture for the future of the human race.
These stories are interspersed with other characters, other voices, the most interesting being a pair of delegates from Mali. Together they present a less familiar picture, that of a country already feeling the real effects of climate change, encroaching deserts and disrupted rain patterns. But no sooner have they said their piece than they are ushered to one side in a way which could, optimistically, be read as a comment on the general media coverage of the issues at hand.
Bijan Sheibani’s production is certainly slick. That’s not intended as a dig; the staging is always visually striking and there are moments of real invention and magic: the polar bear, the silhouettes of swooping circling guillemots. At other times there is a sense of excess and repetition: first plastic bottles fall from the ceiling, then paper, and finally both rain and wind machines get a work-out. Music is used throughout; there’s a brief burst of It’s Raining Men and a rather heavy-handed dance sequence to the strains of Come Fly With Me, presumably intended to illustrate the irony of all the air travel that an event like Copenhagen entails. The obvious parallel is with Rupert Goold’s Enron – and the production’s dramaturg is Goold’s regular collaborator Ben Power. Yet while the markers of the musical, the air of showiness, felt like a bombastic but logical choice for a play about banking and commerce, they feel somewhat shoe-horned in here.
There are some strong individual performances, particularly from the ever-watchable Lyndsey Marshal, and there are also a number of moments of genuine humour, yet the overriding tone is didactic and clichéd – the strand with the young activist is particularly limp – and the whole thing has a stitched-together quality
This is one of a growing wave of plays about climate change. Richard Bean’s The Heretic (chosen promotional image: the polar bear) at the Royal Court looks set to cover similar ground while Steve Waters’ potent double-bill, The Contingency Plan, has already shown that’s it’s possible to merge gripping and plausible writing with the idea of a threatened world. Here, while it’s possible to glean the thinking behind the exercise, the weight of all the voices serves to sink things.