Originally written for The Guardian.
“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.
When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.
Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”
“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.
It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.
“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”
The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.
Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.
“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”
At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.
“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.
“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”
Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.
Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”
So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Photo: Geraint Lewis.