A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction

Miranda Rose Hall
Headlong, Barbican, and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

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Stephanie Hutchinson in A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction Credit: James Drury
Stephanie Hutchinson in A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction Credit: James Drury
Stephanie Hutchinson in A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction Credit: James Drury

This is an innovation, an oddity and a rarity. It’s a show where "the production tours but the people do not".

Originally conceived by renowned director Katie Mitchell as a piece engaged with climate catastrophe—and human response to the eponymous ‘time of extinction’—the production certainly sets out to practise what it preaches. So with an eye on sustainability and carbon footprint, the blueprint for performance has been shared around the venues to which the production tours (York is the last stop on the list), to be re-rehearsed by a different local director, cast and crew in each venue. Here it is directed by Mingyu Lin and designed by Hannah Sibai.

One component of the production’s design throughout its travels is a team of cyclists pedalling constantly over the 80-ish-minute runtime. This, we are told, is to enable the show to be taken ‘off-grid’, and screens suspended above the action show constantly updating numbers which convey the wattage generated by the black-Lycra’d volunteers. Lighting (by Craig Kilmartin) is kept to a minimum in deference to this aim of conserving the usual thousands of kilowatts we’re told a show would burn through.

Before we do go off-grid, the show’s solo professional actor, Stephanie Hutchinson, steps nervously forward and tells us how nothing is what it was supposed to be tonight: she is the dramaturg for what was supposed to be some sort of spectacular climate-change cabaret, but she’s been thrust into the spotlight by the unexpected absence of her two collaborators in the company. This framing narrative unfolds as a story of medical and emotional emergency: one team-mate’s mother has been rushed to hospital, necessitating this last-minute change of plans.

What follows is an hour or so of direct address, some limited audience participation and a gradual weaving of small personal stories of death and loss into the vast, incomprehensible scales of deep time and mass extinction. And not just one extinction (the one through which we’re presently living). Hutchinson, in the role of the dramaturg Naomi, sets out to tell us a story of the numerous mass deaths our planet has witnessed. One of the most poignant reminders is that the Earth is not dying. Though it has witnessed the near annihilation of all life on its surface half a dozen times over, the planet itself goes on. It is instead the interconnected webs of ecosystems living on Earth that are in the process of being killed by human action—violently, at great speed and at great cost to ourselves.

Hutchinson’s performance is engaging and the show compelling. Yet it can’t quite escape some of the common issues of theatre on these themes. For a start, the vast scope of the timescales involved in geological, not human, time—and the unimaginable scale of the destructions being invoked—are nigh-impossible to get one’s head around in any way that’s meaningful. One of the most successful aspects of the production is its linking of species' extinction to personal resonance (the annoying proliferation of midges when the protagonist goes on holiday is linked back to the mass death of a certain species of bat)—more of this would possibly have had a more direct impact.

Another issue, though, is the question of who this is for, exactly. The promotional material from the theatre tells us that the aims of the show are to stimulate conversation and action. But there’s little by way of conversation here. Instead there’s a sense that people who’ll attend the show will know these things already, be engaged with the science, be concerned or scared or sad about the prospects. People who don’t agree or who might be unaware of the scale or speed of change probably won’t be buying tickets.

And lastly, for those who do attend, and despite a likeable central performance and script (by Miranda Rose Hall), the production seems skittish, picking up ideas (the ‘dramaturg’ has been forced to step up and speak directly to us; the audience is asked to embody a forest, or join her onstage) but abandoning them before they’ve really got interesting. For all the claimed directness of the framing narrative of a show abandoned, there is little sense of what that show was supposed to be: the stage is very much set up for the show we do watch.

What’s more, we are also shown the tech crew, on-stage, reading along with the self-declared ‘dramaturg’s’ supposedly improvised speech. Again, puncturing the illusion is interesting (and familiar from other Mitchell productions)—but then in a show that hinges on telling difficult truths, why open by showing us the lie? Why, then, should we believe them that the cyclists are actually generating all the energy for this show—what’s to say they’re actually connected up to the numbers we see flashing by?

Ultimately, then, a valiant attempt at a topic that is difficult to stage, or talk about. It succeeded, in my experience, in stimulating conversation—but unfortunately more about its flawed form than its urgent content.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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