Staging the future

Earthquakes in London,  now running at the National Theatre, takes a wry, and often bleak, look at current attitudes to the future. It’s a pretty impressive piece of dramatic writing, though within limits. It has had mixed responses in the press and on the web since it opened a month or so ago – haven’t linked to them as easy to google them up – partly because of the complex staging (my advice: get a regular theatre seat, but that may not be in the spirit of the thing). I’m not going to add to the theatrical commentary much, but a few future-oriented thoughts after seeing it the other week.

One disappointment was that although it is billed as roaming between 1968 and 2025, implying an intriguing effort to represent links between past and possible futures, it is nearly all firmly rooted in the present – to the extent that the female character who is a cabinet minister (environment) is part of a LibdemCon coalition. The story focusses on her family – three sisters, their partners, and their father, a Lovelockian scientist prone to apocalyptic pronouncements. The past events which really matter concern his lack of interest in being a father, and a bit of by-play about the scientist’s one-time relationship with an airline, for whom he apparently fixed the results of his early studies of climate change. The latter episode is crudely drawn (deliberately, perhaps – it is mildly amusing) but rather unconvincing. It is plain the author doesn’t have much idea about the science, or about how real science works.

He does nail some of the conflicting attitudes to the problem of global change, though. There are earnest politicians trying to make things better, desperate activists, plenty of people partying on to cloak their anxiety or despair, and a few techno-optimists defending progress and inventiveness as the most likely saviours, though they don’t get any persuasive lines so the dice feel a bit loaded. All are thrown into relief by the scientist, who – consulted by his newly pregnant daughter – follows the logic of his position to its limit and advises her not to have the child because the outlook for the world is so bleak it would be  better not to be born.

Her response is the main action of the play, and provides its dramatic climax. I won’t give that away, but I did think the confrontation with future-despair was undermined by the way she comes across as increasingly deranged, by pregnancy hormones as it might be, by earlier emotional abuse, or perhaps by some other mental instability. And when she does appear briefly in an (imaginary) future it is a deliberate fantasy, perhaps because a realistically rendered future which followed on from the present as depicted would be too much.

The overall result, despite these reservations, is intense, involving, and thought-provoking. I was left feeling, though, that although the piece has epic ambitions it still works on too small a canvas, historically and geographically. It says something about the mood of a rather restricted set of people in London, at a particular time. But it leaves unexamined how that might compare with other times and places facing great uncertainty. That is a shame as it is terribly long, and has quite a few superfluous scenes (and songs) as it stands, so could have cut them and left space to open out in other ways. It would be a hard job, and need someone supremely talented, to do better, but I hope someone is inspired to try.

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2 Comments on “Staging the future”

  1. Michael Riordan Says:

    Wonderfully perceptive review. But… “I was left feeling, though, that although the piece has epic ambitions it still works on too small a canvas, historically and geographically. It says something about the mood of a rather restricted set of people in London, at a particular time. But it leaves unexamined how that might compare with other times and places facing great uncertainty.” Surely, as a piece of theatre, the aim of this piece was to explore the different, yet connected, interpretations of the apocalypse among members of a family who have become isolated from one another. Any comparison with other times and places might be interesting from the perspective of someone studying human responses to the future, but would it not be less satisfying as a coherent narrative?

    • jonturney Says:

      Maybe, though the scientist figure, for example, is in his seventies, so would remember the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, say. One could easily imagine a riff along the lines of people being more anxious then, with better reason (as I would argue myself), in discussion with other members of the family. There are less relevant things in the play, believe me!


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