Playing with the Climate

Greenland, a new play about how we respond to climate change, has opened at the National Theatre

A trainee teacher, to her parents’ dismay, turns eco-activist; a passionate government advisor falls in love with a climate scientist; a lesbian couple quarrel about the daily realities of trying to reduce their carbon footprint; and an ornithologist heads off to undertake research in the Artic. These four distinct stories are woven together in a new play at the National Theatre, entitled Greenland, about how we respond to climate change.

Written by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, each of the characters’ stories gives us a different perspective on how climate change touches us. The whole piece is very well staged, with some impressive effects, including some arresting film footage from people trapped during Hurricane Katrina, and a very lifelike, magnificent polar bear.

Through the characterisation, although underdeveloped, I felt a sense that humanity can be better than we are. For example, each of the characters grapples with their conscience and aspires to do the right thing, even though they may be criticised by their peers. The playwrights are positive about human nature and our ability to act selflessly when it really matters.

A theatrical production about our response to climate change was overdue, and Greenland is a thought-provoking result. The writers and creative team set out to generate a public conversation around the most important issue facing our planet today and in addition to commissioning the play itself, the National Theatre has organised pre-show talks with the writers, director Bijan Sheibani and dramaturg Ben Power.

It was interesting at the pre-show talk, to have an insight into the creative process and to hear that for the team, this experience has been an enlightening one and has led them on a journey that may well prove life-altering. It has brought home to them, they said, how we have a capacity to change the world, for better or worse. For one of the writers, it has bearing on the decision of whether or not to have a family.

It is yet to be seen whether audiences will be so deeply affected, but the writers certainly succeeded in their attempt to create a valuable space for conversation. Debate is also encouraged in the after-show ‘talkaokes’ – a concept I found both unusual and thrilling. Talkaoke is a mobile talk show right in the heart of the National Theatre, and the audience are invited to take a seat at the circular table and share their thoughts. I offered my two pence worth, met some intriguing people, and thought to myself, “we could solve a lot more conflict if people came together like this more.”

Greenland is showing at the National Theatre until 2 April 2011