Last time I was in a theatre, I was a performer in a raucous, confusing comedy, with a complex ensemble cast and a mind-bending script. Oh, and that was 8 years ago, while I was doing year 12 Drama. So it was that, sitting in the audience watching Greenland at the National, I saw a little too much of my own drama experience on the stage in front of me.
According to its website, the climate-change themed production “Greenland draws together several separate but connected stories into a fast-paced and provocative new play.” Some words in that sentence are right; I’d take issue with ‘draws together’, ‘connected’ and ‘provocative’, perhaps replacing them with ‘mixes’, ‘vaguely related’ and ‘superficial’, respectively.
Make no mistake: Greenland is a spectacular piece of theatre. The staging, lights and sound are immense, evoking a blockbuster Hollywood movie or a West End extravaganza. The visual language of such styles is usually tied into a single, continuous plot, where the drama of the plot is enhanced by the dramatic effects.
However, Greenland doesn’t have a simple plot. It has four simple plots, cut together from four writers by the dramaturge. Of those plots – from what I could piece together – one had a beautiful story, one had lots of potential, one raised interesting issues in a boring way and the other was quite tacky. These were mixed with some kind of vague, moralising narration and a number of extra scenes which seemed to serve only as a tip of the hat to concepts associated with climate change that weren’t otherwise mentioned.
The result? A jumbled, off-balance stumble through the forest of issues surrounding climate change. The buzz-words were all there: IPCC, Katrina, hockey stick, pacific plastic patch, anarchists, oil pipes, developing countries, lonely scientists, UEA, middle class guilt, Ed Miliband, polar bears, Copenhagen… the list goes on. If that was the intention – provide an overview of climate change as confusing as the real situation – Greenland succeeded.
A confused, superficial overview isn’t what I visited the National for. I can go to a comedy night for rapid-fire social commentary, watch the TV for the news, read a blog about climate emails and go to a rally to see rainbow-shirted hippies. I want to see characters brought to life, with depth and emotion, to examine the human condition in the face of what may be the greatest challenge to civilisation yet.
One plotline almost achieved this; that of a bird-watcher, alone on an icy island, waiting for his beloved birds to arrive as the snow thaws. The internal conversations with his schoolboy-self and sense of wonder about the harsh, yet beautiful environment around him were touching.
In a different way, the romance of a political aide and research scientist was teasingly close to telling a good story, but was broken up with random interjections about the structure of the Copenhagen conference and politics.
If a story is told well, information, ideas and arguments can be woven into it without the viewer feeling as though they’re attending a lecture. The mish-mash of concepts, stage tricks and plotlines in Greenland stopped me from ever connecting to the narratives, so for large parts of the two hours, I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat and waiting for something interesting to happen.
In rare moments, Greenland reached past the surface to draw out some of the intricate and insightful responses people have to climate change. For the most part, though, it was a shallow, flashy enactment, seemingly drawn more from media stereotypes than a real desire to dig beneath generalisations and explore such an important current issue in detail.