“You book a show with the word climate in the title, you are not messing around.”
With this wink of a line, delivered early by one of the five actors on stage, the audience chuckles. We’ve begun playfully, relatively placidly. And, in the first of the fifty speculative vignettes that comprise David Finnigan’s intelligent, affecting and deeply human play on the most urgently all-impacting issue of our time, we continue in this mode.
There’s guerilla activism involving SUVs and lentils. An illegal invisible cat. An affable rural grandfather who calls wind turbines “bird slicers”.
But Finnigan isn’t messing around either. The son of a climate researcher, a twenty-year ally of experts, even a consultant for the World Bank on disaster risk himself, Finnigan has earned repute as a theatre-maker who puts the Anthropocene on trial. You may remember him for his 2017 play, Kill All Climate Deniers – or for Andrew Bolt turning purple when he learned about its government funding – or the apocalyptic rom-com 44 Sex Acts in One Week.
Finnigan's play...manages to reach into the minds of its audience and create an emotional, practical and shudderingly wide-ranging awareness
With Scenes From the Climate Era, debuting in Belvoir’s mainstage season, it’s like Finnigan has taken a dragnet into the imaginations of our world’s scientists and citizens, increasingly saturated with the discourse and chatter of climate change, and cast up an array that – in its entirety – presents a dizzying mosaic of sharply reflective political, ethical and sociological shards. The play is, in fact, inspired by the conversations Finnigan has been hearing and absorbing over the last five years “in meeting rooms, on social media, over dinner tables, in bus shelters, car radios and on dancefloors.”
These five years, he writes in his program note, are different. Both the left and right have shifted, in their ambitions, rhetoric and mindset. We’re long past the moment of no return. Over Nick Schlieper’s spare black stage, the ceiling will sometimes crack open, with a shaft of golden-lit sand pouring down. Time is no longer "running out", though. Time is simply passing. And it will bring with it, as it always does, an accrual of the past, and its consequences for the present.
Under Carissa Licciardello’s capable direction, our five actors – Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Abbie-Lee Lewis, Brandon McClelland, Ariadne Sgourgos and Charles Wu – are well-oiled in their rapid shifts between scenes. With only chairs as props, they jump characters, continents and decades – sometimes back from the current day, but mostly forward.
While the most powerful scenes are monologues, it is an interesting study to see characters in various configurations, too: a patient and therapist, scientist and media person, a group of young friends with their whole lives ahead of them. Propelled by the wave of the production’s cumulative, accelerating and increasingly overwhelming force, these humans take us through all manner of scenarios, from what the future ‘everyday’ may look like (from eco-terrorism on the tarmac to air travel obsolescence) to harrowing scenes of natural disaster. What new ethics will form under these profound new pressures, and how will these new pressures disproportionately affect certain groups? What impossible choices will we have to make?
To comment on climate change, in art or politics, is to contend with the topic’s inevitable banality as well as its vastness. We are never far from hearing about it or talking about it – it is almost nauseating in its sheer ubiquity, the recycled omens and cliches. Because of how our psychology works, and because us theatre-going metropolitans are still relatively sheltered from it, it can be unspeakably dull. And yet, the unequivocal, evidence-based fact that mankind is reaping the destruction of our only liveable habitat, enacting a slow-moving planetary holocaust because of our failure to compromise, is simultaneously something of the greatest order of horror, and a call to action of the greatest urgency. It’s a paradox our pee-wee brains can hardly handle.
Finnigan’s play, allied with Belvoir’s unhysterical yet ultimately shocking production, has somehow manages to reach into the minds of its audience and create in us an emotional, practical and shudderingly wide-ranging awareness of the change that CO2’s rise is effecting. One final transformation of the set – which I won’t spoil here – almost had me break out sobbing. (Writing this, I now sob.) I think we all felt it then: who we are as citizens of this era, what we are collectively doing and failing to do, and what might be coming.
While relentless by the end, Scenes from the Climate Era isn’t without hope (that morally complicated old chestnut). We know this in a sound, a motif in the play, tender and profound in its conception – the sound of a wave crashing on the beach.
Scenes from the Climate Era is playing at Belvoir St Theatre until June 25. Find out more and snap up tickets over here.