Originally written for Exeunt.
Theatre about climate change is fast becoming a genre all of its own. Just this month I’ve seen three separate shows on the subject: 2071 at the Royal Court and now a double bill of climate-activism-spoken-word (how’s that for a niche sub-genre?) at the Free Word Centre. Their approaches, however, couldn’t be further apart.
2071, a collaboration between director Katie Mitchell, climate scientist Chris Rapley and writer Duncan Macmillan, opted for lecture-as-theatre. Mitchell seated Rapley to one side of the stage, against a backdrop of scientifically vague and increasingly soporific projections, and got him to talk about the facts behind climate change. And that was it.
In comparison with the static, dramatically inert set-up of2071, performance poets Danny Chivers and Pete the Temp inject the topic with an invigorating shot of dynamism. Both are responding to climate change from a position of intense involvement – not as scientists, but as activists. Chivers’ show Arrest That Poetcharts his various run-ins with the police, recalling how he became an unlikely criminal in the pursuit of climate justice, while Pete the Temp pits himself (and his mouth) against the huge changes that threaten our planet.
Unlike 2071, which tackled an emotive subject from a position of cool, dispassionate distance, these two shows are soaked in feeling. While this could be problematic, short-cutting the facts with an appeal to emotion, it is instantly more engaging. These two men clearly care about what they’re discussing – and they have the criminal records to prove it. There is no pretence at objectivity (which is, in any case, always impossible) because they are deeply, subjectively invested in this cause. They have chained themselves to railings and staged stunts at energy conferences.
Given the context, however, perhaps this isn’t such an issue. It doesn’t feel particularly controversial to suggest that people who book tickets to see shows about climate change are probably already concerned about climate change. Unless the content is smuggled in under the guise of something else, it will attract a self-selecting audience. In which case, it may be more useful to galvanise audiences and arm them with the tools to create change rather than painstakingly relaying science whose conclusions they are, most likely, already aware of. Instead of using creativity to inform, why not harness it to act?
This is exactly what Chivers and Pete the Temp do. Similarly to Daniel Bye’s How to Occupy an Oil Rig or Mark Thomas’s Cuckooed, they transform protest and direct action from something intimidating into something joyously angry and engaged. Bookish, floppy-haired Chivers exploits the incongruity of his criminal convictions and his innocuous, middle-class, Guardian-reading persona, making us believe along the way that pretty much anyone could end up atop a power station fighting for a better planet – even if, like Chivers, your only skill is a way with words. And words themselves become weapons in this battle, using the mutability of meaning and intention (along with a cheering boost of people power) to upend the language of corporations and government.
Pete the Temp vs Climate Change is a little knottier in its handling of the same subject matter. The title itself is quickly undermined, as Pete recognises the inherent ridiculousness of one individual resisting a vast network of climatic and corporate forces. He also recognises the flaws of various different tactics, from charity campaigning to “armchair activism”, which is dismissed with particular disdain. The implication is that in reality we can only begin to change anything when we act together. If Pete the Temp is sometimes blunter and bleaker in his approach, it is tempered with the same rage-inflected humour that Chivers uses to such great effect. Activism can be both funny and fun – neither of which are words that came to mind while sitting in the stalls at the Royal Court the other week.
But the greatest contrast with 2071 – at least for me – is in the impact made. I left2071 feeling gloomy, small and pretty narked about the quantity of carbon that had been burned in order for me to sit through its sluggish hour and a bit, whereas I left the Free Word Centre’s double bill feeling angry and inspired and galvanised. When I walked out of the Royal Court, about the only thing I was ready for was a moan. But when I walked out of the Free Word Centre, it wouldn’t have taken much to convince me to occupy a power station.