'2071' review or 'Can anyone feel a chill in here?'
2071, Duncan Macmillan and Chris Rapley
Royal Court Theatre, 10th November 2014
Do you remember that feeling when you were young and your parents would tell you that they weren’t angry with you, only very disappointed? That is exactly what ‘2071’ feels like – only climate scientist Chris Rapley isn’t just disappointed with you, he’s disappointed with every one of us and if we don’t listen to him soon, we are going to feel mightily ashamed indeed.
‘2071’ is the companion piece to director Katie Mitchell’s similarly themed show, ‘Ten Billion’, which was about the devastating impact of over-population. The two shows share a lot of traits. They involve esteemed scientists. They do not patronise the audience. They explore urgent issues but refuse to panic or scream and they are fairly low on visual effects. Both have been labelled as merely ‘glorified lectures’ and I have to admit I was one of the doubters when I watched ‘Ten Billion’ two years ago – but I was hooked, chilled and thrilled by ‘2071’. Perhaps it is because I knew what to expect and therefore my conventional dramatic expectations were not quashed. I think that is partly it. But I also think Duncan Macmillan’s script, written in collaboration with Chris Rapley, is better moulded and easier to latch onto – but also to surrender to. I also think Chloe Lamford’s set is much more effective than the replicate office against which ‘Ten Billion’ was played. I spent an awful lot time during ‘Ten Billion’ wondering whether I was meant to be looking for the cracks in the facade of this supposed reality – but there was no such doubt or double meaning in this more visually abstract production. I also think that Chris Rapley is an inspired ‘performer’ who, in his refusal to raise his voice or press the massive bright red button titled ‘PANIC!’, scared the living daylights out of me.
Back to that set. There’s something a little Star Wars-esque about Chloe Lamford’s design, which sees two huge flat screens propped up along the side of the stage and leaning slightly inwards. In between these two screens is a black space, which swallows up all the visuals that stream across the screens and along the bottom of the stage. Lots of the graphics are charts, diagrams or statistics – but the size of these images and the shifting speed at which they are projected lends them a dynamism and mystery all of their own. For example, there is a very simple diagram, composed of a cluster of opposing arrows, which is used to describe the way in which melting water slides beneath the ice caps and eventually dislodges them. On paper, this diagram would look fairly innocuous – but to see all of these arrows digging beneath that massive mass and to watch the ‘arrow’ packed ice cap slowly drift off the screen, leaving behind a great big black nothing, is properly powerful stuff.
Whilst these images are highly effective - ingeniously and quietly atmospheric - it is Chris Rapley who makes this show. Although Rapley (who has worked for all manner of lofty sounding Climate Change collectives and began his career as a satellite engineer) is obviously used to lecturing in front of large audiences, he sounds nervous. His throat gets dry and he frequently reaches for a glass of water. His palpable anxiety lends the show a gentle and earnest feel – an authenticity that simply would not be possible with a slicker or ostensibly more ‘artistic’ production.
Anyway, so Rapley – with his dry mouth and measured voice – takes us through his career and the observations he has made about climate change. He tells us that the temperature of the globe’s surface and atmosphere is rising – and we know that isn’t due to the sun because the temperatures higher up (oh you know what I mean) have not changed. He talks about the rising temperature and levels of the sea, of the melting glaciers and the swelling dark mass, all the better to warm up the planet with. He talks about the critical 2 degree rise in temperature that will take us to a potentially irreversible critical juncture - and he places all of these observations against the context of the history of the planet and the various ice ages and warm ages across the epochs, which all have excellent names indeed. How pitiful and inconsequential the lifespan of the human race seems against the vastness of that ‘big’ picture!
This show is a little heavy going in places but the script is so lucid, Rapley so calm and the graphics so frightening and yet hotly soothing, that the show really does quietly pull you in, deeper and deeper. Macmillan accents the script with just enough personal and human revelations to lend this show a little colour and remind us that this is a man, a man exquisitely committed to his cause (he casually mentions his dozen plus trips to the Antarctic), who is talking to us and not just a scientist. There is one startling image, when Rapley describes a trip to the Antarctic and the moment he touched a piece of ice that had been buried deep in the earth, since before the dawn of mankind. The thought of that ancient ice and its endurance – and the idea that such mystically embedded ice blocks are now leaking into our oceans – is awesome, frightening and almost spiritual.
Above all, though, it is Rapley’s calm that lends this show its quiet impact. Here is a man acutely aware of the near-irreversible dangers our planet faces and yet he refuses to raise his voice, or even modulate it a little. That levelness – the calm and precision and commitment that it must require – is really quite startling. Rapley is so frightened that he doesn’t want to frighten us. He leans forward perhaps two times in the show and the lines that accompany this lean will play about my mind for a very long time: ‘What type of future do we want?’