The world has reached a tipping point: the extent of the unfolding environmental catastrophe is now such that the much-maligned category of ‘climate-change theatre’ is finally starting to feel horribly zeitgeisty.
Dawn King’s dystopian drama ‘The Trials’ is set in a near future in which the climate has collapsed entirely. Any adult who was aged over 18 in the year 2018, with an above-average salary and an excessive carbon footprint is eligible to be tried and executed for their part in all this. And the juries are bored, angry, hormonal teenagers, who are given just 15 minutes to deliberate each case, which they judge on the basis of a single recorded plea from each defendant.
King is intentionally ambiguous about her world: is this only happening in Britain, or globally? Are there unseen adults in charge with the younger generations kept occupied with what are effectively show trials?
But the hints are compelling enough: democracy is briefly discussed in the past tense as a failed system in which the previous generation simply voted for whoever told them what they wanted to hear. The mass slaughter of ‘guilty’ adults is framed in essentially Malthusian terms: in theory, killing them isn’t vengeance, but the necessary reduction of a population now competing over vastly diminished resources (if you’re not familiar with the theories of the philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus… then think Thanos).
‘The Trials’ works both on an allegorical level – how will our children judge us? – and also to explore the idea that revolution and an end of democracy are likely if governments won’t meaningfully tackle climate change.
The play itself revolves around a single jury’s deliberations, on the first day of a two-week jury service. There are some wry details: everyone automatically states their pronouns alongside their name, an ironic sign of courtesy considering what they’re actually doing. For the most part, though, it unfolds much as you’d imagine life-and-death deliberations by a group of teens to unfold: arguments, rage, boredom, horniness, more arguments.
From bitter Noah (‘Heartstopper’ lead Joe Locke) and Gabi (Jowana El-Daouk), who despise adults – or ‘dinosaurs’ – with a vengeance, to Mohammed (Francis Dourado), so implacably convinced of the system’s injustice that he refuses to convict anyone, the kids struggle from the off, although they pick a good leader in the shape of the supernaturally calm Ren (Honor Kneafsky). Their deliberations, though, are not good: testy, emotional, dysfunctional and unprofessional. Charlie Reid’s Tomaz is paying almost no attention and just wants it to be over. It’s not so much that the teens are shown to be inadequate at this compared to adults, so much as they’ve simply been put in an impossible, clearly wildly unethical situation.
I found ‘The Trials’ gripping, both as an urgent imagining of how our generation will be viewed by our kids, but also a smart imagining of revolution generally. These sensitive young adults, inheriting a ruined world and given vast, destructive powers bring to mind the Cultural Revolution or the Reign of Terror. King may have elided the likelihood of revolution with the idea of future generations judging us, but I found her vision compelling.
It has to be said that the standard of acting is pretty uneven. Natalie Abrahami’s production pointedly features a diverse array of real teens, with much of the casting the result of an extensive project to engage young people through schools and community groups, and over half of the cast are making their professional debuts. Some of the performances are a bit ‘school play’, with stagey pauses and over-enunciation of words. But it’s a laudable experiment that fits thematically. And professional actors have been engaged to provide balance. ‘Heartstopper’ fans here for Locke will be happy that his intense, angry Noah is a highlight, as is pro actor Kneafsky’s zen Ren. There’s even another ‘Heartstopper’ alumnus in William Gao as dashing volunteer worker Xander.
And then there are the defendants. The teen action is punctuated by three adults making their pleas to the jury. The actors playing the nameless defendants – Nigel Lindsay, Lucy Cohu and Sharon Small – are all excellent, and their monologues are troubling and complicated. There’s the businessman who lived a comfortable life that he has tried to atone for; the playwright – and surely King proxy – who protests she has always tried to live an ethical life; and the kind-hearted oil executive who tearily admits to her crimes. As our proxies, they’re great, and raise the level of the acting by some way; it’s also fascinating to see how the jurors react to them each time – rarely in the ways you’d expect.
How will future generations judge us? Probably not as literally as this. But for all its flaws, I was gripped by ‘The Trials’, a parable about the near future that’s also an unsettling window into the vertiginous chaos of revolution.