Regardless of whether they approve of it, artists love war. There is no shortage of films, novels, poetry and music about Vietnam, the D-Day Landings or the Gulf Wars. Even the protracted stand-offs and non-events of the Cold War inspired great films like Dr. Strangelove, The Spy who Came in From the Cold and The Manchurian Candidate.
Looming environmental destruction, on the other hand, hasn’t ever grabbed artists in quite the same way. While there are some wonderful examples of artists who are addressing the effect our species has on natural landscapes and ecosystems – sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, photographer Edward Burtynsky and the writers associated with the New Nature Writing ‘movement’ immediately spring to mind – their work remains primarily about nature or the loss of it. What we haven’t really seen is stories about human beings at this particular crux in history and geological time. Books on climate change are political essays or scientific treatises, not novels. Films are documentaries rather than human dramas.
And to be fair, it’s hard to make a story out of climate change. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has pointed out, it’s a topic which bears none of the elements that trigger our evolutionary alarm bells. There are no clear bad guys and no major wranglings with traditional hang-ups about honour, shame and disgust. And while the scientists say climate change is happening in the blink of geological eye, to a little primate like you or me, it feels slow, drawn-out and forever associated with the future. How the hell do you tell a decent story without the basic building blocks of agency, virtue and immediacy?
Steve Waters may have the answer. The Contingency Plan, his double bill of plays now showing at London’s Bush Theatre, is the first piece of drama that I’ve seen – theatrical or otherwise – which both addresses the serious science of climate change and holds its own as a rivetting human story. In the first play, On the Beach, Geoffrey Streatfield plays Will, a glaciologist returning from Antarctica to his parent’s coastal home in Norfolk sometime in the very near future. His father Robin (Robin Soans) has long abandoned his former career in climate science for a reclusive, off-grid life watching birds and grumbling about politics, with only Will’s long-suffering mother (Susan Brown) for company. Both Will and Robin believe that rapid ice melt at the poles is about to wreak havoc on Britain’s coastline, and so the drama revolves not around whether the science is right, but how we should act with the knowledge we have. For Will and his civil servant girlfriend Sarika (Stephanie Street), good science should challenge the powers-that-be, forcing them to act appropriately. But Robin believes that politics is both corrupt and corrupting, complaining that there is little anyone can do inside the system to create change.
Waters takes the political intensity of David Hare and the thrill of the best kind of science fiction and crams it into the kind of claustrophobic British family you’d expect from Harold Pinter. In a stroke, he brings Gilbert’s key “trigger points” to bear on climate change, without it ever feeling clumsy or contrived. The issue of agency and responsibility – of scientists, governments, ordinary people – is at the fore. The play turns on the opposing virtues of Will’s proactive, political engagement and his father’s Taoist resignation to nature’s wrath. And by concentrating the action on a small patch of Norfolk coastline, which is nevertheless effected by events at the other end of the world, Waters makes it very clear that climate change will not remain ‘over there’ or ‘in the future’. It is already now. As the sirens howl and Will’s parents prepare for the coming storm, the terror, suspicion, love and solidarity of those earlier war stories comes flooding back with the ocean surge.
I’ve yet to see the second half, Resilience, which takes Will to Whitehall to do battle with the new Conservative government’s Climate Change Minister. But each half is supposed to stand alone, and the play is on for such a short run that it wouldn’t do to wait until then to recommend it. The Contingency Plan a haunting and angry piece of theatre, punctuated with moments of tenderness, humour and contemplation. Brilliantly acted, directed and designed, it should be seen by anyone who gives a damn about theatre and anyone who gives a damn about humanity.