Friday, 28 January 2011

GREENLAND at the National Theatre

     Last summer the National presented Rupert Goold's enthralling production of Mike Bartlett's EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON. Here was a play that put ecological questions at the heart of a human story. Ecology was part of the larger question of how to live meaningfully in the chaotic post-modern world. Bartlett writes in the published text that the play is about excess and that is what the audience experienced. The play was also about recognizable characters one could care about as we followed the three-plus hour extravaganza. Why did the National felt it needed another theater piece on ecology this year? And why did it produce one that wasn't very good. Where the three-plus hours of EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON flew by, the two-hour GREENLAND seemed interminable.
     Among other things, GREENLAND shows why plays written by committees are not a good idea. The program lists four playwrights: Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne. It may be possible for four playwrights to create a coherent theatrical experience, but this mishmash wasn't one of them. Episodes simply repeated themselves instead of developing. Characters (well, not quite characters) would step forward and deliver basically the same speech again and again. Scenes would seem more repetition than development. GREENLAND was also a lesson in the problems of writing a didactic play. The National Theatre audience is likely to be aware of and accept the idea of global warming. So why give them a two-hour intermissionless harangue. If you're going to write a polemical play, you need characters the audience cares about and you need a good argument. George Bernard Shaw, the master of this sort of play, always gave the best lines to the character you were supposed to disagree with. In other words, you have got to put your ideas into a play. GREENLAND got tiresome because it only presented one side of the issue and was only interested in the people who were fighting global warming. The interesting human story is of the majority of us who know we're heading for destruction but go on driving our cars and drinking out of plastic bottles. The real issue is that we have been so brainwashed as consumers that, like addicts, we can't live without the things that are destroying our world. That's the story to tell, preferably in an entertaining satiric mode with characters who aren't walking cliches. This was a tiresome two hours. People were walking out and I don't blame them. When you're preaching to the choir, make sure that you understand the form in which they will listen to you.  
     For all the faults in the script,  director Beijan Shebani did all he could to turn it into a viable piece of theatre. I was mightily impressed with Shebani's production of OUR CLASS last season. Like GREENLAND, it was a politically charged ensemble piece but, unlike GREENLAND, it was a gripping script with three-dimensonal characters. There were visually beautiful moments in Shebani's production, particularly in the scenes in the Arctic which were the only really interesting scenes in the play. Among other bits of theatre magic, the production had the most impressive bear I have ever seen on stage. However, al the smoke and mirrors, projections, falling snow and rain can't hide a tedious script. Why were the actors  heavily miked? I was in the fifth row and only heard the actors through the loudspeakers to my right.
     A slightly tangential question -- do National Theatre audiences watch DEAL OR NO DEAL on tv? I don't but take it that the many scenes in which characters were carrying numbered red boxes were in some way referring to that show. Each time a young man gave basically the same speech -- at great length - about why he wanted to win. What was the point??
     I haven't said much about the cast because they weren't given anything interesting to do. It was a waste of talents like Lyndsey Marshal. They danced, ran around a lot, flew, popped up out of trap doors, gave speeches, moved furniture. Lots of sound and fury. And lots of stuff falling onto the stage and, at the end, being blown into the auditorium. Perhaps these environmentally conscious folk should care about the cleaners who have to sweep up the mess the play left and the environmental impact of the trash the production created.
     As one left the auditorium one confronted in the lobby a mock radio panel show on global warming. The moderator tried to interest the exiting audience members in participating. Everyone ran for the hills. Perhaps they should have had a panel discussion on the perils of producing a committee-created, one sided polemical play.   
GREENLAND. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. January 27, 2011.

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