Professor Chris Rapley’s just-the-facts lecture, dramatised by British playwright Duncan Macmillan, gets an Australian premiere
With the United States undecided as to whether it will remain a signatory to the Paris Agreement, and President Donald J. Trump maintaining his stump speech position that the science of climate change amounts to some colossal hoax, Professor Chris Rapley’s just-the-facts lecture 2071 arrives at a critical juncture.
Co-written by Rapley (physicist and Professor of Climate Science at University College London) and theatremaker Duncan Macmillan (whose adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 arrives in Sydney at the end of June), this TED-style briefing lays out in rigorously clear and unemotional language the issues and choices we face.
Rapley’s text weaves the personal into the scientific. He explains how his interest in science was awakened as a boy in the late 1950s by a map of Antarctica marked with the words “regions unknown to man”. Much of his work as a scientist and science communicator since that time has been devoted to the study of that continent and its role as an engine of the planet’s climate system.
He also tells us that in the year 2071, his granddaughter will be the same age he is now, which raises the question: what kind of planet will she be living on?
In its original Royal Court production in 2014, Rapley spoke the text himself. In this version, the first staged in Australia, actor John Gaden serves as proxy, explaining at the top of the piece that he is not there to impersonate Rapley, only to relay his words. But even though he relies on a video monitor for much of the show, it’s not long before the suspension of disbelief kicks in and the debonair, euphonious Gaden erases the distinction.
Director Tim Jones augments Rapley’s lecture with a commissioned score (Andrée Greenwell), video projections composed by Joe Crossley, and a speaking-moving-singing chorus of six young actors from the Australian Theatre for Young People, co-presenters of the event.
It’s a tricky balancing act. Too little ear and eye-candy and 2071 risks becomes a dry lecture, particularly for stimulation-hungry young audiences. Too much and it distracts from what is being said. For the most part, Jones arranges the various elements very well, though Crossley’s video elements tend toward the decorative rather than informative and movement director Patricia Wood’s contribution is relegated to the shadows.
Jones’ decision to share the early lines of the piece between Gaden and the young actors makes for an unfocused first few minutes but it works well as 2071 comes to an end. The mere presence of Lucy Brownlie, Sasha Rose, Ellery Joyce, Matthew Simmons, Jacqueline Morrison and Heath Jelovic makes a powerful point. They, after all, will be the people experiencing the shifts being spoken about here.
2071 isn’t a doomsayer’s piece. Rapley understands that frightening people only results in apathy. But neither is he optimistic. Engineers and scientists of the world have the collective ability to solve the problems facing the planet, Rapley says, while conceding that politics – populist politics in particular – will play a significant if not dominant role in coming decades, a period that will at best pose enormous challenges to our wellbeing, or at worst, dramatically impact the fundamentals of our existence.