Fuck the Polar Bears, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

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 Bearsis 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?”

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Eclipsed, Gate Theatre

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The worst things are always unseen: the bloodshed just off-stage or -screen, the implied atrocity, the imagined worst case scenarios. The same goes for Eclipsed, a violent play in which violence is more a texture than a series of acts. Set in a warlord’s compound during the Liberian civil war in 2003 and focusing on the women scratching out a living there, Danai Gurira’s play and Caroline Byrne’s production keep all of the worst horrors out of sight, but their shadow is ceaselessly cast over everything else.

So we see guns, but we never witness anyone being shot; we see the aftershocks of battle, but never the moment of impact. The daily reality of sexual violence, meanwhile, is gestured towards with little more than the clanging of a door and the sudden, obedient formation of the commanding officer’s “wives” into a line: a ritual as regular as clockwork, broken when one is selected and silently offers her body in exchange for her safety. The microcosm that Eclipsed depicts is a man’s world populated by women, with the forces controlling their lives always just around the corner, their presence oppressive but invisible.

“Violence,” writes Lucy Nevitt in Theatre & Violence (part of Palgrave Macmillan’s excellent Theatre& series), “tells us things about the culture that produced it: the kinds of power relationship on which it is built, the attitudes and values that it takes for granted. A representation of violence can reiterate or challenge normalised social structures.”

This raises a knotty and regularly asked question: does the representation of violence (and especially violence against women) simply reinforce the structures and ideologies that allow that violence in the first place? And is a representation of violence on stage indeed an act of violence in itself? Here, violence has become habitual in the lives of these women, but its destructiveness is never normalised. When a nameless new arrival turns to guns rather than her body as a tool of survival, we feel the full, horrific weight of that (non-)choice, as well as the power structures that force it upon her.

Violence also turns things upside down, unsettling reality. Beneath the routine brutality, there’s a strange tedium to conflict in the experience of these women. Eclipsed brilliantly captures the precarious yet mundane rhythms of their existence, in which war has become a constant, faded backdrop. It’s not the atrocities that demand stage time so much as the long expanses in between, dead hours to be filled with joking and squabbling and reading eagerly from a battered Bill Clinton biography (the States always distant yet near). Humour is punctuated with horror.

Much like Palestinian drama Fireworks (another of the best new plays I’ve seen so far this year), life in Eclipsed has a flat yet brittle texture, one that threatens to be shattered by the yearned-for but terrifying promise of peace. It’s become impossible to imagine a time beyond the conflict – as one character puts it, “I don’t know who I is out of war”. When your identity is so wrapped up in violence and instability, how do you get a hold on who you are?

For all of its vital wider critiques, it’s the five complex female characters who emerge most powerfully from both Gurira’s play and Byrne’s assured, compassionate production. They’re all known by role rather than name: the commanding officer’s wives numbered by rank, the visiting outsider simply identified as one of Liberia’s Women of Peace. Yet in the hands of Byrne and her brilliant cast, each is distinctly and humanely individual. Wives number one and three (Michelle Asante and Joan Iyiola respectively) bury fear and anxiety in affectionate quarrelling, jostling for the CO’s favour. The former discovers a glimpse of herself when she scores her real name – Helena – into the scorched earth; the latter finds meaning in the birth of her daughter.

Lingering on the edges of the compound are Faith Alabi’s diamond-hard wife number two, now going by the name of Disgruntled and toting a gun, and Rita (T’Nia Miller), a woman on a mission for both peace and her missing daughter. But it’s the astonishing Letitia Wright as the new girl – we never learn her name – who leaves the most shattering impact. Tough yet vulnerable, there’s a determined stillness to her suffering, everything contained behind the eyes. When that exterior finally cracks, the shockwaves reverberate long after the curtain call. We don’t need to see what has happened to her to feel the depth of its horror.

Photo: Helen Murray.