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The powerful anti-theatre of “2071”

A play about climate change at the Royal Court

Robert Butler | November 7th 2014

I’ve heard the climate scientist Chris Rapley speak many times. Seven years ago I interviewed him for this magazine (when he told me Sherlock Holmes would have quickly grasped the evidence) and, since then, I've heard him at conferences, in lecture halls, on panels and at dinners. Last night he appeared on the Royal Court stage, delivering a 75-minute monologue entitled “2071”—the year his eldest grandchild will be the same age, 67, as he is now. Here was a Rapley I’d never seen.

A professor of climate science at UCL, the former head of the British Antarctic Survey and the former director of London's Science Museum, the Rapley I know is a busy, bustling figure, who appears at the lectern with smiling flourishes and an air of importance, and then turns frequently from the laptop on the lectern to the large screen behind as he works his way through a PowerPoint presentation. On the way in last night, I’d readied myself for the graphs where lines run along the bottom axis for most of the page and then suddenly shoot up at an exponential rate at the right-hand edge; maps of the world where the parts getting hotter now appear in lurid red and orange; and those pairs of black-and-white photos of the Antarctic which show how much ice there was only a few years ago and how much less there is now.

It wasn’t like that at all. Rapley walked on stage in a dark suit, burgundy V-neck, tie-less striped shirt, and sat downstage, crossed one leg over the other, and began, in a low-key, slightly nervous way to explain his background and how he got interested in earth sciences. He had no notes, every word was scripted, and he remained remarkably composed and still. The three most dramatic physical moments came when he uncrossed his legs, when he reached for a glass of water, and when, at the mention of the precise weight of an IPCC report, he allowed himself a half-smile.
 
The central paradox of this performance (which is really just a marvellously courteous piece of exposition) is that it has taken a theatre director, Katie Mitchell, and a playwright, Duncan Macmillan, to strip away the noise around the subject and allow a scientist to speak calmly and lucidly about what can reasonably be said. Macmillan spent many hours interviewing Rapley and, like the book writer on a musical, his hidden skill is in the evening’s structure. It moved from establishing Rapley’s credentials, to laying out the basic science, to explaining how observations are made, how they are analysed, how a number of other possible causes can be eliminated, how confident we can be of the veracity of the findings, and where things are very likely to lead. 

It was only at this moment that the black-and-white video projections behind—fluid, semi-abstract and eerily beautiful—turned red. Rapley listed many reasons for hope. But the upward curves of the lines behind showed the enormity of the task. This was anti-theatre, in its way. It wasn't asking the audience to listen to a charismatic expert while he dazzled them with his specialist subject, or to be pulled in different directions by a polarising debate (and then, as non-experts, to have to adjudicate on who sounded the more plausible). This had been much more modest and powerful. This had been an invitation to share in a journey in which, bit by bit, an argument was patiently assembled that led to a conclusion that was vast in its implications. 

If we hadn't gone through every step up to that moment, and appreciated the weight each point had carried, it would have been extremely human and tempting to dismiss the place where we now found ourselves. Science, Rapley concluded matter-of-factly, can't tell us what's right and wrong or what we should do. It’s for us as a society to work that out. But hearing this talk was as good a first step as any.

2071 Royal Court, London, to Nov 15th

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