Monday 28 February 2011

there's laugh-out-loud, but you can't float free

Ian McEwan's most recent novel, Solar, which features climate change as a major theme, is now out in paperback. In his review at the weekend Nicholas Lezard suggests that a comedy on this subject isn't possible:

It has many laugh-out-loud moments and turns of phrase; it has a darkly comic thrust; but, because deep down it really is concerned about climate change, it can't float free of the world as comedy can.

See also are they reading the same book? more ...

classics and headlines

The Guardian theatre blog links to some recent posts we've done about Oedipus, Faust and Frankenstein.

the best art maintains its true relevance not by reacting quickly to the headlines, but by probing deeply into the fundamental things that make us human more ...

Saturday 26 February 2011

why human rights activists are not like climate scientists

In the last blog, would a play about climate scientists be the best way to write about climate science?, the point was made that a play about human rights didn't have to feature a human rights activist.

The analogy between human rights activists and climate scientists has prompted a couple of emails.

One email pointed to the difference in the way the professional and emotional lives interacted:

I think climate scientists and human rights activists are completely different in terms of the potential tension between their emotional and professional lives, the material they are working with and how they are viewed publicly.

The other suggested that the kinds of knowledge that each work with and represent are fundamentally different.

Science is so embedded in knowledge about climate change, that it is a different kind of thing to human rights. So I'm not sure the comparison really holds up. Does this matter? Maybe not in a general kind of way - if what this means is that the 'specialist' or 'expert' is not the only person who can speak. But it does matter in a more specific way - that in thinking about climate change on stage - it might be a relief to get rid of the scientists, but one may still have to come to grips with science - in much more complexity than just the 'facts' or 'predictions' or 'scepticism'. more ...

Friday 25 February 2011

would a play about climate scientists be the best way to write about climate science?

In wanted: a portrait of the climate scientist as a real person, this blog argues that

the most interesting characters to put on stage right now are climate scientists ... simultaneously appalled and fascinated by what they are discovering.

The artist and theatre-maker Tim Nunn responds

My trouble is not wanting to use climate scientists at all. Is it the same as writing about human rights by portraying a human rights activist? (That isn't a rhetorical question by the way.) Your last paragraph makes it sound as if the climate scientists would do a pretty good [job] themselves if they were given the chance - why should we represent that on stage? (Again, not a rhetorical question.) I've been torn about this for ages and not finding a way through.

True, there's no reason why a play about climate science need feature any climate scientists. A good play is about more than its immediate subject matter. For instance, David Hare's The Permanent Way is about the privatisation of the railways. But its real theme is grief.

That said, there have been important plays that are fairly directly about scientists. In Science on Stage, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr lists "a wonderfully diverse" range of scientists who have (since Brecht's Galileo) peopled the stage.

Her list mentions Bohr, Heisenberg, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Ralph Alpher, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Rosalind Franklin, Thomas Huxley, Tycho Brahe, Johann Kepler, Stephen Hawking and P.A.M. Dirac.

Yes, climate scientists can do a good job representing themselves. But playwrights can do a good job representing them too.

Interestingly, Science on Stage makes no mention of climate scientists. (It was published in 2006.) But it's evident that James Lovelock has been the inspiration behind characters in The Contingency Plan - Steve Waters talks about this here - and Earthquakes in London.

But Tim Nunn is quite right: a play about human rights does not have to feature a human rights activist. more ...

Thursday 24 February 2011

wanted: a portrait of the climate scientist as a real person

In his preface to The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard makes the point that writers can have real political influence. His example is Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches, which Stoppard writes,

"were plausibly said to have done more than anything else to turn the 'Reforming Tsar' Alexander 11 towards abolishing serfdom."

But the writing has to be precise and observant. Earlier in the preface, when discussing Alexander Herzen, Stoppard writes,

"What he detested above all was the conceit that theoretical future bliss justified actual present sacrifice."

Twentieth-century history was on Herzen's side. It's easy to imagine, today, that many playwrights' resistance to climate change as a political subject comes from this idea that it deals with a "theoretical future" and that it is being used to justify "actual present sacrifice". Playwrights like to write about real situations, flesh and blood characters, the here and now. And they like jokes.

In some ways, then, the most interesting characters to put on stage right now are climate scientists: not a climate sceptic disguised as a climate scientist (as happens in The Heretic), but the climate scientists who are simultaneously appalled and fascinated by what they are discovering.

At last year's TippingPoint conference in Oxford, climate scientists spoke candidly and wittily about how their work had altered their lives and their world views. If caught accurately, that kind of portrait might have real political influence.
more ...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

What are the first signs of spring - frogs, birds, bees or buds?

The BBC’s Nature UK blog has asked,‘How do you define spring?’ The Daily Mirror thinks spring is coming early in the UK, but others disagree. Our American co-editor Kellie Gutman searches online for an answer.

It is not easy to answer, except to say, that if you follow Twitter there are many signs. The BBC's Springwatch has been receiving tweets from all over the UK on the topic.

On Feb 2, lakedistrictnpa tweeted from Kendal:

Saw loads of snowdrops on the walk into work. Spring’s a-coming! #ukspring

On Feb 4, Boudica_ tweeted from Devon:

Red-tailed bumblebee spotted yesterday in Herts; recorded @#naturescalendar.

On Feb 6, jerembybiggs tweeted:

Is this the UKs first frog spawn?:

On Feb 8, landguardranger tweeted from Felixstowe:

just seen first elder leaves breaking their buds on reserve, bliss #ukspring is on its way.

On Feb 10 Jemnick tweeted from Hampshire:

Chaffinch, song thrush, dunnock all in spring song mode! Great! #ukspring

On Feb 20 skylarksue commented on BBC’s Nature UK blog

Here in Essex garden, snowdrops have been out for 3 weeks. Bluetits are rearranging grass & straw in the nestbox. There are buds on my cherry tree.

Meanwhile, this blogger, writing from Boston, has just been cross-country skiing. The record-breaking snow is beginning to melt. Houses on the sunny side of the street have a foot still in their front yards; those on the shady side have two-to-three feet.

To record your own Spring sightings, sign up to nature's calendar

To follow Spring's advance in the US, look at Journey North 2011

To follow the way a school has followed the first signs of spring, year after year:
school postcard asks our snow-bound co-editor to keep an eye out for the first daffodil
flowers on stage: snake's head fritillaries
spring forward
more ...

Friday 18 February 2011

what oedipus rex tells us about climate change

In his column, 'Nature Notes' in the Independent, Michael McCarthy argues that the particular way in which we think about the major problems that confront us makes us incapable of grasping their size.

The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn't (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).

In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever.

pic: Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus and Clare Higgins as his mother/wife, Jocasta.

See also
What Frankenstein and Titania tell us about climate change
The Greek Divide
Leave it the way we got it 
More hubris
Adrenaline on the cornflakes
The Greeks had a word for it
more ...

Thursday 17 February 2011

what frankenstein and titania tell us about climate change

A few days ago, commenting on the themes in Greenland and The Heretic, this blog said:

At the moment it feels as if playwrights are reacting to the journalistic noise around climate change. When the deeper ideas do emerge in plays, and these ideas inform the actions of the characters, the immediate subject of the play may not even be climate change.

What that post might have added, is that many themes that relate to climate change already exist in other plays. In his new blog, Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University, finds that the National's production of Frankenstein is more thought-provoking about climate change than Greenland.

there is a Romantic anti-industrialisation/anti-urbanisation strand which runs through environmentalism from day 1. But there are also strands in recent discourses of climate change ‘solutions’ that are in thrall to science and technology’s apparent invincibility and adaptability. Hence the arch modernists who were formed in the whiteheatoftechnology environment of the 1950s and 1960s are happy to contemplate immense geo-engineering experiments and massive expansion of nuclear power – Science discovered this problem and Science will solve it.

After this blog had tweeted that link, Susannah Clapp, the Observer's theatre critic and author of With Chatwin (highly recommended), replied by suggesting A Midsummer Night's Dream and Titania's "the seasons alter" speech.

In Act 11, Scene i, Titania describes how through "this distemperature" we see:

The seasons alter: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which

(In 2002 Futerra made a short film, The Seasons Alter, based on this speech.)

See also: Mark Rylance picks climate change lines from King Lear, All's Well That Ends Well, Two Gentleman of Verona and King Lear and Bill Moyers picks two lines from King Lear.

See also: George Monbiot finds Dr Faustus the key text.

pic: Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in the NT's Frankenstein more ...

Wednesday 16 February 2011

commissions divide between those who have a track record in this area and those who don't

Wallace Heim, co-editor of the Ashden Directory, assesses the latest TippingPoint commissions announced last night

In the mix of projects awarded TippingPoint commissions, it’s striking how most of the companies and artists do not have a history of working with environmental themes.

Some do: Feral Theatre; Vicky Long and Tim Sutton; and Craig Vear. But others seem to be coming to the challenges of this commission - to stimulate the imaginative thinking necessary to navigate a world shaped by climate change – for the first time.

This could be an argument for how, once funding is made available, productions will follow. This could also reflect how any artistic practice –  aerial spectacles, intimate vigils, composed music, sound art, the crafting of objects, place-based performance – offers a particular way-in to understanding a changing climate.

The expectations for these projects is high. The example of Greenland at the National Theatre shows how a sudden education in climate change does not necessarily produce a viable play; the lessons of a decade of environmental performance weren't learned.

An ideal would be if these TippingPoint commissions can bring fresh and nuanced ideas about climate change to their own inventive practices.

Full details on the winning commissions on the Ashden Directory. more ...

Tuesday 15 February 2011

tipping point winners announced tonight

The winners of the Tipping Point commissions will be announced this evening. (This blogger was one of this year's readers of the proposals.) Report to follow. Tweets from 6.30pm.

Update: the winners of Tipping Point commissions were

In the Beginning was the End by dreamthinkspeak (£20,000)
My Last Car by 509 Arts (£15,000)
A Beautiful Thing by Barnaby Stone (£15,000)
Found Voices by Joe Duddell and Craig Vear (£10,000)
Unplugged at The Eden Project (£9000)
The Funeral for Lost Species by Feral Theatre (£5,000)

and the Tipping Point/Without Walls commission went to

As The World Tipped by Wired Aerial Theatre  (£30,000)

Full details on the winning commissions on the Ashden Directory.
See also commissions divide between those who have a track record in this area and those who don't
See also: reports on two of last year's winners: fingers on the button and giant day in Tooting.
more ...

Martin Luther King had a dream, but he had other phrases too

Climate change activists like to quote Martin Luther King's "I have a dream ..." as an example of selling a positive message that will appeal easily to people.

But in the same speech this blog reminds us Dr King also spoke in grittier terms about the "fierce urgency of now" and "the tranquillizing drug of gradualism".
more ...

Friday 11 February 2011

two very different plays about climate change share some things in common

"Climate change drama is the new growth industry", writes Michael Billington in today's Guardian. Well, about bloody time.

Greenland opened at the National on 1 February, and Richard Bean's The Heretic opened at the Royal Court last night. They couldn't be more different.

Greenland has four authors, multiple storylines and an anxious desire to reflect the range of positions people have taken on the subject. The Heretic is the work of one author, its science is about as plausible as its plot-line, but it's got some great characters and some very funny jokes.

If the two plays are similar at all, it's in what they don't achieve.

Neither play catches the intensity of feeling that surrounds these issues in the developing world. They are Eurocentric, when understanding how one half of the world impacts on the other is central to the subject.

Nor does either play give a genuine sense that the news contained within the IPCC reports changes our view of the world, and our place in it. The reports do this, and they do it as profoundly as Galileo stating that the earth revolves around the sun or Darwin stating that all species of life have a common ancestry.

These are ideas that can't be speedily researched by playwrights. They raise large philosophical and ethical questions. (The first report was published in 1990, so we've had 20 years to think about it.) But the ideas have to be lived with, experienced and internalised.

At the moment it feels as if playwrights are reacting to the journalistic noise around climate change. When the deeper ideas do emerge in plays, and these ideas inform the actions of the characters, the immediate subject of the play may not even be climate change.

Pic: Johnny Flynn in rehearsals for The Heretic. more ...

Thursday 10 February 2011

one planet discusses climate change plays

This blogger is on the World Service's One Planet today discussing plays about climate change. There's also a contribution from Steve Waters, and an interview with Ben Power, Greenland's dramaturg, who says: "We're trying to find a different way to talk about this thing." more ...

green words, but not green talk

The lively twitterstream from the State of the Arts conference shows how popular green buzzwords are. There have been a lots of references to "ecology", "sustainable", "environment" and "resilience". But none of these words have been used in a green context. more ...

"sustainable" in what sense of the word?

The second State of the Arts conference opened with a speech from Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England. In the speech, Forgan outlines the "five clear goals". The third goal is:

We will make the arts sustainable in every sense of the word, from carbon reduction to marketing, from finance to fundraising and not least how the arts can seize the transformative opportunities offered by digital technology.

To put "carbon reduction" in the same sentence about sustainability as "marketing", "finance", "fund-raising" and "digital technology" is to blur the issue badly.

See also: Sustainable is not a metaphor

Update: In this week's TLS, the poet Hugo Williams writes: "The over-used 'organic' has given way to 'sustainable' to mean anything remotely decent." more ...

Tuesday 8 February 2011

david hare's documentary subjects

David Hare on writing documentary dramas.

“I am never comfortable until I can understand a way of it being more than the subject matter.”

"When I go to see a film like The Social Network, then I feel a kinship, I feel they are doing exactly what I am trying to do, which is to make a modern myth out of quasi documentary theatre. But in the theatre, I feel incredibly lonely.”
more ...

Monday 7 February 2011

views of greenland: "like frazer in dad's army"

This is only the second time that the National Theatre has staged a play that addresses climate change. (The first time is here.)

The issue of climate change seems, almost invariably, to present theatre critics with an irreconcilable tension between the material and the form in which it is presented. Here's a selection from half-a-dozen first night reviews of Greenland.

"Like Frazer in Dad’s Army, Greenland repeatedly warns that we are doomed, and that unless we mend our ways, sharpish, it will serve us jolly well right."

"I care about the issues. But I couldn't give a damn about any of the multiply-authored characters."

"Greenland is not so much a play as a statement put out by a committee."

"The show starts with a big issue and then seeks ways to illustrate it. I suspect it would be more fruitful to take the more traditional route of beginning with characters and a situation and working outwards."

"The trouble with this sort of fact-into-fiction project is that the wholly commendable statements of the green movement wind up sounding gauche and laughable when transposed into drama."

"Thought-provoking debates will surely arise in the accompanying series of NT platform talks"

From Daily Telegraph, Independent, Observer, Guardian, London Evening Standard and Independent on Sunday

pic: John Laurie as Private James Frazer, the Scottish coffin maker, in "Dad's Army"
more ...

Wednesday 2 February 2011

what the twitterverse thinks of greenland

@Paul_Griffiths_ Feeling all green and depressed after @nationaltheatre #Greenland; on my way home to recycle, buy some wellies and write my will!

@ktlovestheatre National last night for #Greenland. Patronising claptrap! Script? Mali? Bamako? Eco-lesbians? UN? Rubbish! Like poor quality TIE. Miss it!

@miriamgillinson Is it bad that climate change feels like old news? Let's hope #Greenland @NationalTheatre changes my mind.

@pat_hobby @jackthorne did you write the toilet roll monologue in #greenland ? The first play to ever revolutionise the audience's wiping technique?

@peterlacy #Greenland new play at #National Theatre: strength/weakness doesn't tie story together in simple message. Frustrating but true of real event

@cathradojcin Went to see #Greenland at @NationalTheatre - v compelling & exciting look at climate change & all it's issues &complexities.Fully recommend

@shesaws Home from #greenland at the NT. Still making up my mind about how the climate change argument was made, but it certainly generates debate.

@tiina_hei Some excellent polar bear characterisation, rainfalls and snow storms at @NationalTheatre this evening. #Greenland more ...

british playwrights have "blithely ignored" climate change

British theatre prides itself on being contemporary, up-to-date - in a word, hot. So it’s odd that, over the past decade, there have been so few plays about climate change. While everybody, and I mean everybody, has been talking about global warming, while climate-change deniers have been branded the new fascists, and while well-publicised protesters have tried to stop electricity stations from functioning, British playwrights have - with only a couple of exceptions - blithely ignored the subject.

From first paragraph of Aleks Sierz's review of Greenland for The Arts Desk

Why theatres don't touch climate change
From no plays about climate change to three in a month
Finally a good play about climate change more ...