Ten Billion

Critics' choice
© Stephen Cummiskey
Stephen Emmott

'Ten Billion' is neither a play nor a work of fiction, but rather a monumentally sobering one-hour lecture on the impact of human overpopulation upon the planet, delivered by distinguished scientist Stephen Emmott.

It's been devised by Emmott in collaboration with theatre auteur Katie Mitchell, and her hallmarks are visible – projections, discreet washes of ambient sound, a set that's a complete replica of Emmott's Cambridge office. But Mitchell's touch is light here and her biggest contribution was presumably using her heft at the Court to bring in this unusual project.

Emmott lacerates us with terrible predictions, backed up by painful facts: that the global population is spiralling out of control, and will hit 10 billion by the end of the century; that the planet cannot possibly sustain this many people; that Bangladesh will be drowned by the sea in a century; that 10 trillion litres of water is required annually to sustain the UK's burger industry; that it seems unlikely anybody will act to stop this.

He is an excellent lecturer, charismatic, plain spoken and slyly funny, but deadly serious about the subject in hand. I've read some of these facts before, but the sheer cumulative impact of a scientist calmly saying them to your face is devastating as anything I've seen in this oft hard-hitting venue. Certainly it's vastly more powerful than last year's major eco-dramas, the NT's 'Greenland' and the Court's own 'The Heretic'. There is no 'we might be screwed' option – it is made plain that the world that we grew up in will be gone in few generations and the sooner we accept it, the better we're likely to weather it.

Staging 'Ten Billion' to liberal audiences in a 90-seat theatre is unlikely to help this realisation spread across the globe, but it's exemplary programming for a major arts institution – and if it leads to Emmott being offered a wider platform elsewhere, then bravo.

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