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Greenland will be showing at the National Theatre until the beginning of April

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Greenland, at the National Theatre

Matilda Lee

10th February, 2011

‘When you see smoke coming from under the door, but nobody does anything about it, you start to believe the majority. Even if the house is on fire, we do nothing.'

The buzz these days is about selling ‘the sizzle', about how chasing the inward (humanistic) or outward (success and prestige) goals will change human behaviour when facts and figures have fallen flat. So you would expect that when one of the country's best theatre directors, the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner, decides to engage with the ‘hot' issue of climate change it would have resulted in something that sizzles or at least forces the audience to look at climate change in a different way. In fact, Greenland, falls somewhere between propaganda and art, but it's hard to say whether it succeeds as either.

The National commissioned four writers: Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne to find different routes into the subject of climate change. The four spent six months interviewing people in the worlds of science, politics, business and philosophy. In short they had access to some of the sharpest minds and/or outspoken voices on the subject - from the Hadley Centre, DECC and Greenpeace, to the Lord Lawson Global Warming Policy Foundation and James Smith, the Chairman of Shell.

The result is a two hour play involving a patchwork of characters and scenarios all grappling in their own way with the question, ‘what do we do?' Without providing an answer, it is a stage production of which makes clear our human fragility in the face of climate change. As the play's Director Bijan Sheibani says, the topic is ‘broad, diverse and complex' and the aim was to ‘bring a degree of coherence to it'.

The audience are in the same predicament as the characters: we are all trying to come to grips with climate change. The sensation of being overwhelmed is felt through the constant barrage of flow charts and the ominous loudspeaker voiceover. The response to this information overload forms the basis of the disparate character's stories.

For the young, middle class student it is too much to bear. Her reaction to reading Climate Wars is to drop her studies to go out and ‘change the world'. Mum and Dad aren't convinced: ‘Sweetheart, all this eco stuff is making you unhappy', says Mum.

Cut away to COP15 in Copenhagen, where suited delegates spout  acronyms and chant 'brackets on, brackets off' - a reference to the process of coming to agreement on clauses in climate agreements. The DECC policy wonk is an old hand - glued to her Blackberry and unable to concentrate on anything for more than a nanosecond. But she's only human. She tells the scientist she's flirting with, a COP conference virgin, that the NGO party is the ‘last chance to sleep together' before the climate change conference finishes.

She is torn between revealing his ‘game changing' scientific research - predicting we're all screwed - and the obligation to temper the headline-hungry media that wants everything now. As she, po-faced, reads out her press release to a Guardian journalist, a former flame, he tells her uncharitably: ‘It doesn't crackle.' ‘It's not breakfast cereal', she retorts.

Cut away to the Arctic explorer experiencing the joy of a rare bird sighting, acutely aware how the thinning ice threatens native wildlife. He has a flashback to his youth as an optimistic, working class boy on the make trying to get a place to read Geography at Cambridge. Then there are the achingly worthy lesbians going through couple therapy. One is taken to task for frequenting Starbucks while she, in turn, bemoans how complicated everything has become and longs for the days when she could do her bit by remembering not to flush the loo. Facing climate change, the characters seek solace in their relationships with others but is this ultimately what prevents us from doing more to stop it? A man trying to find his moral compass wonders ‘when you see smoke coming from under the door, but nobody does anything about it, you start to believe the majority. Even if the house is on fire, we do nothing.'

Changing character

The other, not insignificant, story about Greenland is the ‘journey' that the writers have been on since being tasked with dramatising climate change. None of the four writers felt they really knew about climate change and at the pre-show Platform event, they talked about how the process of research and writing about it affected them.

‘I'm definitely a more careful shopper.' Moira Buffini says, ‘I shop differently'. Matt Charman chimed in: ‘It's changed the way I shop in supermarkets - I look where food is from - so much so that the only thing in my basket these days is carrots and mushrooms. It's hard to live the way we should.' It even got the writers to consider the moral issues of having children and whether or not it was responsible to bring new life into the world.

Another audience member asked why the National takes sponsorship money from large corporations ‘who are part of the problem and not the solution'. The National Theatre staff looked uncomfortable and left Moira Buffini to answer. ‘The thing that gets me is the disconnect,' she says. ‘I interviewed James Smith, head of Shell, who believes in climate change personally, but professionally Shell are involved in the Arctic gas rush. I know the National Theatre need funding for a new building, but...I'm looking forward to a day when [oil and gas] sponsors are treated slightly more like the tobacco industry.'

Leafing through the theatre bill I noted that British American Tobacco is a corporate partner. If the National is making a foray into activist art they should be clearer about what they stand for.

 

Greenland is being performed at the National Theatre until April 2nd

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