THE frisson of Armageddon is again running through the stalls: London is awash with plays about climate change. At the National Theatre, “Greenland” gives audiences a stern warning against inaction on global warming. Meanwhile, at the Royal Court, “The Heretic” sketches the countervailing dangers of groupthink for an academic who disagrees with climate-change orthodoxy. “Earthquakes in London”, which prophesies climate-doom in the city, was a hit at the National last year; more environmental dramas are coming to smaller theatres soon.
Art has tackled man-made threats to the planet since the Old Testament. During the cold war, theatre learned to love the bomb and its moral complexities, in plays such as Sir Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood” and Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”. Climate change has already established itself as a dystopic heir to nuclear war in cinema, in films such as “The Day After Tomorrow”. Dramatists seem to have been inhibited by the subject’s technical density. But now it has reached the London stage.
Some critics have complained that “Greenland” is hysterically alarmist. Matt Charman, one of its writers, argues that “Not engaging with the subject would be the real failure for a national theatre.” Throughout the evening, theatre-goers are lashed with rain made of paper (recycled), while characters discuss climate-change “denial” and rebuke the audience for its un-green habits.
“The Heretic” is a rival to “Greenland” intellectually as well as politically. It opened on February 10th, starring Juliet Stevenson (pictured) as a professor doubtful about climate change, which puts her on the wrong side of received opinion in her department, earning the enmity of her ethically flexible boss and colleagues. A script full of digs at green complacency has delighted climate-change sceptics, who often complain that their case is denied a proper hearing.
Richard Bean, who wrote the play, has a record of controversy: his drama about racism, “England People Very Nice”, was denounced by some for reinforcing stereotypes rather than challenging them. Now he has courted another fierce argument. He says “The Heretic” is “meant to show how government and the mainstream media have adopted an unproven hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming, as if it were undisputed.” The backlash was predictably swift: Fred Pearce, an environmental campaigner and author, damned the play as a “boorish and confected conspiracy tale”.
It turns out that theatre can make drama out of climate change. But it seems to generate more heat than light.