Review: A Play for Living in a Time of Extinction (Barbican Theatre)
The programme notes tell me that ‘Tonight you are part of an exciting experiment in sustainability. What might theatre-making in the future look like?’ And it is an exciting experiment! Normally a show’s touring logistics aren’t particularly fruitful ground for comment, but for this show world-renowned director Katie Mitchell is working with pioneering theatre company Headlong, and together they have conjured up an innovative new touring model, apparently the first of its kind in the UK, in which the play tours but the people do not. What this means is that in each city that the show is presented, a new team of theatre makers will bring it to life.
The admirable form of this play is enough for it to merit its existence - in the Barbican the onstage lighting and sound are powered by ten performance cyclists, five in a row either side of centre stage, who peddle non-stop for seventy (ish) minutes to light up Moi Tran’s Tron-like stage. This is a fantastic concept, and does provoke questions about how we might make more ecologically conscious theatre going forward, yet, considering a staging that is bursting with innovation, Miranda Rose Hall’s one-woman eco-monologue feels too slight for the occasion.
The conceit of the play, as announced to us by ‘It’s A Sin’ star Lydia West, is that West’s theatre company, ‘Zero Emissions Theatre Company’, aren’t able to put on the ‘in your face’ spectacular show they had intended to perform as someone in the company’s Mother (nature?) is dying. The show they had planned is described as an ecological ‘carnival of death’ set to music, with choreo and nudity, which I thought sounded quite cool. In order to stop the show being cancelled (they were thrilled to be performing at The Barbican) they have sent the dramaturg (West) on to perform…something…instead.
The script is then essentially a lecture on how fucked we are, which is very, going over the other extinction level events that our planet has gone through (we’re currently in the midst of the sixth). The facts are stark and depressing, the world has lost more than two thirds of wildlife in the last fifty years, but by far the most poignant moment in the evening is when West lists off the species that have gone extinct in her lifetime, with videos of the lost plants and animals projected onto two large screens. The rest of the monologue, before and after, is a bit muddled, West’s character lacks the authority of an actual scientist (as in the Mitchell-directed, scientist-performed Ten Billion, that was at the Royal Court back in 2012) which wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if the dramaturg was more of a meaty (or meat-substitute-y) role.
This isn’t to say that West does badly with the script, she holds the room with a friendly confidence that suits the character perfectly, I just couldn’t help thinking that the ingenious concept needed more experimental content to keep it afloat. I kept wondering what a less text-based company might do with the staging, what Forced Entertainment’s version would be, or Ontroerend Goed’s, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe this model can become one that many more companies can use, change, build upon.
To return to the programme notes, the aim of the play is to ‘take you on a life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster that is unfolding around us’. Life-changing, no - but a genuine start to how we might think more creatively, more ecologically-consciously in our theatre making and, given we are living in an age of mass extinction, that's worth celebrating.
A Play for Living in a Time of Extinction is touring around the UK, for more information click here.
Photo credit: Helen Murray