The Economy of Ecology

David Cartwright
Manic Chord Theatre
The Studio, York Theatre Royal

Sam Berrill and David Cartwright in The Economy of Ecology Credit: Manic Chord Theatre
Sam Berrill and David Cartwright in The Economy of Ecology Credit: Manic Chord Theatre

From Nick Payne and Tom Stoppard to Curious Directive and Complicite, there’s a wide-ranging tradition of science and theatre overlapping, as playwrights and companies seek to draw on cutting-edge research through the immediate interactions made possible by live performance.

Manic Chord’s new show, created and performed by Sam Berrill and David Cartwright, follows in this line to present some fascinating revelations about the nature of social connections in, well, nature. Essentially, the company has been looking into the ways that ecosystems communicate. From what we’re told, trees in fact send chemical messages to each other along a system of underground fungal networks; “Facebook for fauna”, as the main character, Steve (David Cartwright) puts it at one point.

This was pretty mindblowing, for me at least (though it is not as new a discovery as it might appear from the production). In any case, it’s a shame that such memorable factoids haven’t (yet?) been marshalled into a more theatrically compelling form. I say “yet”, because in many ways this slender 55-minute work feels like it’s still in-progress. Ideas, dramatic situations, and character snippets are sketched out, but as yet they feel underbaked, in need of further nuance and connection.

Connection is clearly a keyword for the company, as the piece also explores the importance of touch and the ways in which such direct skin-to-skin communication is rare in the modern world. These are productive but as-yet underexplored parallels.

The form of the show alternates between one strand presenting a lecture delivered by David Cartwright, as university lecturer Steve, and one depicting snatches of interaction between Steve and a particularly nervous fellow passenger (Sam Berrill) on the plane en route to the Oregon conference at which the academic is to give the talk.

Both men are likeable performers and Cartwright in particular delivers the “paper” in a compelling manner, mingling autobiographical titbits with some interesting facts. But the piece as a whole feels thin. The scenes of conversation between the pair suffer during lengthy pauses which, without more precise clowning work or more carefully whittled dialogue, feel frustrating and tedious rather than intriguing.

At moments, these plane scenes flourish into more promising flights of fancy, moving away from the realist frame in which they open. We see flashes of a more inventive physical and theatrical language. But again, it feels like a collection of too-loosely related thoughts, with none as interesting as that about the mycorrhizal (fungal / root) networks.

Laura Price’s design and Will Monks’s lighting and video seem slightly at odds with each other. The potentially evocative projections were diminished by the otherwise simple but effective wall of cardboard boxes which forms the backdrop for the performance. More could have been made of both.

Overall, the piece of theatre it most put me in mind of was On Ego, by Mick Gordon and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. But where Gordon and Broks had so many ideas, the 90-ish minutes of On Ego felt crammed, here—even with a considerably shorter running time—we have too many gaps, into which I hope Manic Chord will grow over time.

Reviewer: Mark Smith

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