A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction
The Barbican Centre, 27th April 2023. Review.
Lydia West, star of It’s A Sin and Inside Man, gives a commanding performance in this entertaining and disturbing eco-monologue, written by Miranda Rose Hall and designed in partnership with Headlong Theatre Company, for sustainable delivery on a tour which is not a tour but rather a series of productions with cloned sets in six venues.
Naomi (Lydia) is the sole member of her fictional drama group available with the others absent on personal matters. Not quite all saving the planet together then! Still, the show must go on, even if Naomi is ‘only a dramaturg’ and not used to being on the big stage. This is a very big stage, by the way. But Lydia commands not just the space around her but the whole of the Barbican Centre.
Naomi quickly gets things going. First, she brings on a crew of ten cyclists, providing company and athleticism. Then she drops us all into darkness – taking the show off grid – and tells the cyclists to get pedalling. Soon we have light.
Making light work of it (photo: Helen Murray)
This leads us nicely onto Creation, as a backdrop to the history of mass extinctions to be reflected on. With her hands high above, channelling bursts of energy, Naomi expounds the big bang theory, rather than Genesis, side-stepping Darwin’s proposition that religion and science can make a viable partnership. On the ‘B’ of the Bang, then. This theory hardly seems plausible to me, ever. How does something come from nothing? In the theatre I’m much more comfortable hearing about nothing coming from nothing. But Queen Naomi is in the house. King Lear is roaming and ranting on the heath somewhere.
Next we hear that mass extinction is not a new thing. There wasn’t much to lose in the early extinctions, dust and rock for starters, but over billions of years things have evolved, with single cell pond life, extensive mutation, dinosaurs, neanderthals and fossils; maybe not all in that order. Carbon has been managed along the way. And now, finally, things are really warming up. We are collectively causing the biggest of all disasters, and this time it will also be intensely personal.
Some of the information in the script seems targeted at those already initiated, in a time of apathy. Even a little humdrum, for those who know. Other sections are more probing and come across with much more depth and verve, spoken with passion, desperation even. The Environment itself is never humdrum. And amidst all the angst, there is still some hope. Just barely.
It's time soon for a moment of pantomime, with a call for audience participation. Who wants to be a tree on stage? A dozen or so wannabe stars step up and sway from side. An instant pop-up forest. Lydia then has all the rest of us waving our hands in the air. She has such powers to charm.
Naomi (Lydia West) (photo: Helen Murray)
Next, it feels a bit like the Oscars when we see a big screen come down and commemorate all those who have passed away. Only here, unlike in Tinsel Town, this means species that have become extinct over a long period, not just in the last year. A slideshow of extinct species is followed by another with those close to extinction. Birds, fish, mammals; notably Atlantic cod, haddock, tiger sharks and little brown bats. Naomi has a tear in her eye every time she thinks of the bats. They are all gone or endangered. Soon there will be no evidence that they ever existed.
I’m wondering how all this is going down. Some in the audience may be completely destroyed at this point, many seriously disturbed, and a few perhaps not that bothered. I decide I'm sort of disturbed. The overall message is bleak, but the delivery is amusing and perfectly timed. I'm thinking I wish I'd told Naomi about my fig trees on the allotment when she called out for personal favourites. She would have told me they were beautiful. But I kept quiet. Inaction and silence have so much to answer for.
The big positive I take from Naomi’s / Miranda's speech is that given the planet has survived five mass extinctions and come back better and stronger each time, surely one more can’t hurt? We seem destined to hasten along mass extinction number six, but this will also bring in the start of a new age. One where we’re replaced by super-beings, more intelligent custodians no doubt, though not necessarily any the wiser. And yet, I fear I might just have missed the point.
© Eddie Hewitt 2023
The Barbican: A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction
Headlong: Show page and tour dates