As Water resurfaces at the Tricycle, and Greenland weathers a critical freeze across the river at the NT, so The Royal Court weighs into the issue of climate change with Richard Bean’s The Heretic, an attempt to reveal the human face beneath the chilling mask of the “climate change denier”.
Juliet Stevenson delivers a typically acute and spry performance as Diane, a climate scientist at odds with the departmental orthodoxy at her northern university. She liberally swears her way through a thicket of vaguely non-PC jokes, spectacularly exposes fraudulent science, and encourages her gawkish and intelligent student Ben toward sceptical rigour. As Ben, Johnny Flynn not only delivers a canny mix of comic exaggeration and earnestness, but reminds us why in another guise he’s been amongst the more interesting artists in the nu-folk scene, with a truly moving ballad that delivers real pathos in an otherwise sentimental second half that see’s Jeremy Herrin’s staging – unblinking throughout – begin to flag.
James Fleet provides reliably funny support as the crumpled professorial colleague, and Lydia Wilson looks too big for the confines of Phoebe, a caricaturish daughter whose antipathy toward her mother Diane threatens to drown the play’s real-world antagonisms in comedy polemic and kitchen-sink psychodrama. It appears that in the spirit of iconoclasm, Bean is happy to sacrifice political youth to the familiar template of sulky teen – the stroppy anger at mum (“I hate you, fascist”), the stroppy anger at scrabble (“quasi-fascist”), the patronising fare of a thousand Middle England friendly televisual moments – resulting in a tone not dissimilar to Nick Clegg’s unctuous call for maturity at the recent student demonstrations.
In Diane however we get a much more fleshly figure, and unlike the portrayal of James Lovelock in Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London last year, a normalised and non-pathological portrayal of a sceptical scientist. She peppers her opponents with delicious snark; railing at a generation which looks at an image of a Polar Bear on an ice flow and sees not an animal at ease in its natural habitat, but Leo Di Caprio’s Titanic scream-face as his world ends; taking a cuddly toy polar bear into a dismissal meeting in lieu of a union rep; taking on Jeremy Paxman who appears here in a recorded cameo; flagging up the developmental unevenness of greening; pricking what she sees as an addiction to narratives of catastrophe.
And as bitty and sporadic as Diane’s assertions are, they successfully accrete into an account of scepticism that bypasses the hysteria of right-wing blogs and Fox News, to present a soft but growing voice of humanist empiricism. And while the science itself will no doubt be leapt upon, Diane’s belief in the integrity of scientific observation, and the impossibility of separating grains of empirical truth from the political threshing machine, her difficulty with the value-laden act of creating systematic knowledge, her distrust of universal method, all make for a perfectly respectable philosophical outline. Which filters finally into a memorable closing monologue, a poetic cri de coeur in which it is us humans that are the apogee of creation, “the stars are God’s mistakes”.
The play owes much to Stoppard’s Arcadia, another piece about the politics of publishing, the nature of knowledge and paradigm moments, love and lyrical monologues about science. But where Stoppard’s deft text wove the charge of love into the centre of all of things, The Heretic slightly bolts it on in a soppy second half. And where Arcadia wields a magnificent intellectual centre of gravity, The Heretic is piecemeal and occasionally unconvincing. But this is all totally unfair; if Arcadia is God’s perfection, then this bright-burning, intelligent and lively romantic comedy, is much closer to being human than it is to Diane’s dead balls of gas.