Humans are terrible at heeding warning signs. In Pompeii, people saw the smoke spewing from Vesuvius for days before it erupted. Few ran. Today, the alarm bells of climate crisis are ringing all around us, yet still we carry on as normal, exploiting the environment for every last penny. What’s future destruction compared to a few extra quid in your pocket today?
At least that’s the starting point for Tanya Ronder’s new play, which pits climate change against straightforward, self-destructive human selfishness. Her protagonist, Gordon (Andrew Whipp), has just been offered the job of CEO with one of the energy giants, a position that comes with dirty money – and lots of it. His wife, Serena (Susan Stanley), has her sights set on an exclusive riverside pad and London’s best prep school for their young daughter Rachel. The price? Only the planet they live on.
“I just want us to enjoy our lives,” says a stress-frazzled Gordon to his unfulfilled, fitness-obsessed wife. Money clearly hasn’t bought happiness for this couple, but still they grasp desperately at the climate-destroying possessions they feel they’ve earned. Their high-energy lifestyle, meanwhile, finds its contrast in their frantically recycling Icelandic au pair Blundhilde (Salóme R. Gunnarsdóttir) and in Gordon’s recovering drug addict brother Clarence (the ever-excellent Jon Foster), who has found refuge in a simpler life. Around them all, things start to fall apart.
Fuck the Polar Bears’ bludgeoning symbolism is about as blunt as its title. Lights flicker. Rubbish mounts. There’s a problem with the water. And Rachel’s toy polar bear is missing, nowhere to be found. In Caroline Byrne’s production, the building chaos of Gordon and Serena’s home is climate crisis in microcosm, everything spinning (literally, thanks to Chiara Stephenson’s sleek revolving stage) out of control. It’s not hard to see where this is going, or what it’s none-too-subtly pointing to.
As an idea, folding the predicament of the planet into a tightly focused family drama is a promising one. It’s often the small-scale that drives home the impact of the large. Here, though, everything is made unnecessarily explicit, while the tone teeters awkwardly between comic, surreal and earnest. Some sharp images jump out from Ronder’s text – Blundhilde’s description of Gordon as a necrophiliac “screwing a dying world” is one hell of an insult – but it does far too much explaining and debating, especially in later scenes. As so often with climate change plays, it all begins to sound a lot like a Guardian editorial.
These are vital discussions to be airing, especially as this winter’s climate change summit in Paris fast approaches. Humanity is on a deadline – if indeed the deadline has not already passed. But I wonder, as I wondered when watching 2071 last year, if this is really the forum for it. As with 2071, Fuck the Polar Bears is hardly carbon neutral, and also as with 2071 it’s likely to attract a crowd who are already concerned about the issues it addresses. It’s hard not to ask, as Ronder’s characters fruitlessly circle her subject matter, “what’s the point?”