For all its innovations and good intentions, the play’s baffling and almost-absent narrative structure does little to further the conversation.
The UK premiere of Miranda Rose Hall’s A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, directed by Katie Mitchell and starring It’s a Sin’s Lydia West, is advertised to be ‘darkly funny’, ‘life-affirming’ and a ‘bold experiment in eco theatre-making’. Its deliverance on these promises, however, is another matter. Rose’s play raises important questions about the environmental impact of the theatre itself, while Mitchell makes strides in eco-conscious theatre practices with her new localised model for touring productions. However, for all its innovations and good intentions, the play’s slightly baffling and almost-absent narrative structure results in an unimaginative approach to climate theatre that does little to further the conversation.
The environmental commitment of the production cannot be faulted, as Mitchell commits to limiting travel where possible and the production is taken over by a different team in each location. Lydia West will not be touring to York or Plymouth. Neither, I imagine, will Citizens of the World Choir, a London-based refugee choir that joins West onstage in the last moments, in a union of impassioned speech and music that has the aura of an emotional Doctor Who end-of-season climax.
The lighting design is a stand-out feature of the production, as the Barbican’s high-voltage rigged lighting and house lights that illuminate the first ten minutes are promptly abandoned, and replaced with neon, pedal-powered strip lights. Plunged into darkness as the original lights are extinguished, we are kept in suspense as the whirring sound of bicycle wheels anticipates the return of electricity. Several flashes of neon later, our patience is rewarded as green light frames the stage to re-illuminate (to much applause) West, flanked by a mesmerising backdrop of repetitive motion and an oddly compelling live wattage counter.
It's in these moments where we jointly hold our breath that the production has the capacity to impact. In the 70-minute monologue that represents her stage debut, West invites us to lift our arms, wafting them about in a meditative movement. We are told we are ‘critters’. When, in the whistlestop tour of the history of the Earth, the critters unceremoniously die, our arms slump to our laps as one, and their absence is felt momentously. These are the moments that are life-affirming, reminding us what it is to be part of something, to feel each other’s presence, and to feel compelled to participate.
Yet there is a limit to how much this can achieve, and the play begins to resemble an unthoughtful tour of mass extinction and human destruction. Asked if any of us have a favourite tree, we wait patiently as a man with a microphone chases raised hands around the stalls and eager participants offer up stories that start off sentimental and end up with poplar trees torn down by mean-spirited councils. If I remember correctly, the question was ‘Does anyone have a favourite tree?’, not ‘Does anyone have a heartbreaking story about a tree that has been tragically chopped down?’. Too keen to participate in a narrative of ‘aren’t humans awful?’, the question of ‘how we might move forward?’ is lost somewhere along the way. This is all topped off with an unnecessarily long list of endangered and extinct species (the bats!), accompanied by an admittedly very cute slideshow of videos capturing them in all their beauty. While there is something to be said for allowing time for these species, we risk turning off after the first 20.
Ironically, what had the most potential to provoke thoughts was the least effective element of the production: the framing device. Opening and closing the play as Naomi, West presents us with a dramaturg overwhelmed by the state of the world and passionate about sustainability. She tells us that what we are to see today is not the show that was intended; her theatre partner’s mother is in a critical state in the hospital, and, although out of her comfort zone, she has had to step in in order to share their message. Taking frequent and apologetic breaks from the mic to calm herself, and at one point supplied water by a concerned ‘stage manager’, she struggles through her introductions. This is the moment we need to connect with our speaker – a woman out of her depth but so passionate that she goes on regardless. However, where the delivery wanted to be candid it felt inauthentic. Paired with an at-times overblown script, it did not allow for the blurring of actor and character necessary to buy into a purportedly ‘unscripted’ moment, and the subject matter is undermined as a result.
The question of what future theatre-making might look like remains a pertinent one, and the staging and touring model of this production do much to ponder both the environmental impact of theatre and its potential solutions. However, the bulk of the production offers up little to no new insights on the climate crisis, and its straightforward TED talk style does little to shift the audience’s perspective. Unable to buy into the framing device and receive ‘Naomi’ with the seriousness she required to make the desired impact, I left the theatre not feeling ‘fired up to collaborate and innovate in the face of the climate emergency’, as the programme invites. Rather, I left a little deflated, and frustrated as the promises so tantalisingly advertised were left unfulfilled.
The production will be touring to Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Shakespeare North later this month, the New Vic and Theatre Royal Plymouth in June, and York Theatre Royal in September, with further venues and casting to be announced.