Yes, Virginia, another climate change play. After suffering through GREENLAND at the National (see below), I feared the worst. Actually, Richard Bean's THE HERETIC is delightfully heretical on the subject. Diane Cassell is a professor of paleophysics and geodynamics at a northern British university who passionately believes that science is more important than dogma. For her, what cannot be scientifically proven is simply cant. Diane measures sea levels in the Maldives and her research shows no change on water level. Meanwhile, everyone in her's and related fields is firmly in the climate change church. As she tells a news reporter, "The real global warming disaster is that a small cohort of hippies who went into climate science because they could get paid for spending all day on the beach smoking joints have suddenly become the most important people in the world." Everyone around Diane sees her as an apostate. Her department chair -- her lover twenty-five years ago -- declares her insane and puts her on suspension because her research and pronouncements may prevent major corporate funds from coming into the department (no academic freedom at this university!). Her anorexic daughter has joined Greenpeace. The Sacred Earth Militia are sending her death threats and are planning to kidnap her. Her new protege won't get in a minibus for a class trip because it uses fossil fuel. Diane knows that some of the science supporting theories of climate change is sloppy or downright dishonest, but no one wants to believe her.
THE HERETIC is not a primarily a polemic against climate change. It is a sweet, intelligent comedy about four deeply flawed people. Diane's troubled, anorexic daughter is the collateral damage of her own intellectual tyranny. She home schooled her daughter so she would not have to deal with lesser mortals. Her chair is a sweet, weak man who is still madly in love with her. Her star pupil is a lonely, troubled young man who happens to be brilliant and deeply imaginative. Along the way, these four flawed people become something of a family. In a cynical age and in a country famed for its sense of irony, THE HERETIC is a celebration of being human. At the end, Diane muses, "The stars are God's mistakes. We are the miracle. Life. Human intelligence. Human innovation, creativity, invention. That is why every night the stars gaze down on us in awe." It is also an attack on crippling dogma.
One could quibble about some aspects of Bean's play. The professor in me wonders if academic freedom is so threatened in British universities. I am as anti-dogma as Bean, as skeptical of cant from the left as from the right, but I don't think we can ignore all the junk we send into the atmosphere. As someone once said, "The human is the only animal that fouls its own nest." Nonetheless, I enjoyed every minute of THE HERETIC. Like the last few occupants of the Royal Court, CLYBOURNE PARK and TRIBES, it is a clever, provocative look at contemporary codes of morality and at the same time, affirming of the best in people. And, like them, it is intelligent writing.
We saw a preview and there are still a few glitches in Jeremy Herrin's production, particularly the climactic scene which is now incoherent. I had to read the script to understand what was happening. However the cast is superb. The Royal Court always seems to get the best actors. It is wonderful to have the radiant Juliet Stevenson back on stage in a role that is perfect for her. While everyone else is fine, the standout is young Johnny Flynn as the nineteen-year-old idealist. He comes close to stealing the show.
THE HERETIC by Richard Bean. Royal Court Theatre. February 9, 2011.