What do you picture when you hear the words climate change? A melting ice cap? Rising oceans? Plumes of polluting smoke? Or, perhaps, a polar bear?
The polar bear has been absorbed into the iconography of climate change. It’s the fluffy face that gets slapped on complex discussions about emissions and greenhouse gases. In Powder Keg’s new show, that familiar image – the plaintive polar bear on its ever-shrinking patch of ice – is deconstructed. Powder Keg and all those photographs of polar bears are essentially trying to do the same thing: provoke an emotional reaction to climate change that might be more powerful than the intellectual responses that so often lead to despair and paralysis. To have that impact, though, Bears tries first to strip away what we think of when we think about climate change.
Climate change theatre tends to be wordy. It’s all debate and statistics and characters agonising out loud about their responsibility towards the planet. Bears, by contrast, is completely wordless. It’s a refreshing shift in approach – a break from the overwhelming barrage of facts that tends to accompany conversations about the climate. Because the thing is, we know the facts, more or less. We know the headline, at least: human-caused climate change is warming the planet at an alarming rate and if we don’t do something about it we’re all fucked.
Bears doesn’t tell us any of this. It abandons facts and figures for something more visceral than educational. The bears of its title are performers Ross McCaffrey, Hannah Mook and Jake Walton, all dressed in ragged, patchwork polar bear costumes. Sometimes they behave like animals, sniffing the air and pawing at the ground. Sometimes they behave like humans, dousing themselves in deodorants and elaborately setting the table for dinner. Sometimes they’re a little bit of both.
We watch these bears as they… well, I’m not always entirely sure what they’re doing. It takes a while to sync in with the show, settle into its rhythm and get used to its lack of dialogue. And even then, much about it remains mildly bewildering. At first, we seem to be watching scenes of domestic preening and territorial struggle. McCaffrey and Mook are a couple tending carefully to themselves and their home, while a starving and desperate outsider (Walton) looks on enviously. Eventually, tentatively, they welcome him and share their food and drink. But when he gobbles down a whole KitKat from their limited supply, their hospitality begins to turn sour.
As the show goes on, things increasingly fall apart. Detritus – plastic bottles, food wrappers – piles up on the stage. The ‘bears’ begin attacking the set, tearing it apart bit by bit. Xavier Velastin’s brilliantly unsettling sound design rumbles underneath throughout, rising from a dull hum to a furious roar. The escalating destruction, while not explicitly ‘about’ climate change, evokes many of the ways we humans are destroying our planet: the rubbish, the plastic, the careless devastation of our surroundings. In one startling moment, the lights all go out with a shower of sparks. In another, Mook’s twinkling garland of fairy lights becomes an enclosing cord from which she struggles to break free.
Theatrically, it’s ambitious, and it’s great to see how the support of the Royal Exchange’s Hodgkiss Award has pushed Powder Keg to challenge themselves. It’s a real step up in many ways from their previous show Morale is High (Since We Gave Up Hope), with some inspired use of design, sound and lighting. It’s also worth noting that the set is constructed from recycled materials and the company have made an effort throughout the creation of the show to minimise their impact on the environment as much as possible. Too often, theatre is happy to talk the talk but less willing to assess its own carbon footprint.
I’m not sure, though, how much Bears has changed the way I feel about climate change. Because that’s what it seems to be trying to do: shift conversations about climate change from the mind (which is so very good at compartmentalising and ignoring existential fears) to the gut. But except in a few stunning moments, I don’t find myself affected in the way this show seems to be striving for. I’m as scared and anxious and angry about climate change when I come out as when I went in. I don’t really feel as though I’ve learnt or felt anything particularly new.
It all contributes to a vague hunch I have about climate change theatre. There’s something about the dramaturgy of environmental crisis – the terrifying acceleration towards a catastrophic but still unknown future – that seems to resist theatrical treatment. Too often we end up with an overload of information, a nihilistic statement of doom, or an over-optimistic message of hope and change. Bears boldly breaks the mould of theatrical treatments of climate change, but it’s not clear what it ultimately achieves in addressing this subject matter. The question of how (or if) theatre can inspire a change in our collective attitude towards the planet remains open.
Bears was on at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Click here for more details.