It’s been almost two months since I cycled over to the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see a matinee performance of Earthquakes in London.
I had looked at the publicity material and a few reviews online. These had cultivated certain expectations. I had an idea that Earthquakes in London was going to raise some big issues1 and also that it promised to be a roller coaster ride of theatrical excitement.
The production was certainly exuberant. A fantastically well choreographed mess of overlapping scenes, video backdrops, musical numbers, a revolving catwalk.2 Out of this orchestrated chaos the play’s larger themes gradually came into focus.
Mike Bartlett’s script weaves the issue of climate change into a King Lear-like relationship between a father and his three daughters. Paul Shelly plays the father Robert, a climate change scientist who sold out to the airline companies in the 70s and now foretells impending environmental catastrophe.
His three grown-up daughters are all struggling with their own dilemmas. Freyer is pregnant, due to give birth, and unable to combat her anxiety about bringing a baby into the world. Meanwhile the uneasy relationship between politics and commercial interest comes to the foreground in the career options of Sarah, played with great sass by Tracy-Ann Oberman, liberal democrat minister for the environment who, like her dad, is being courted by the air travel industry. And the youngest daughter Jasmine, played by Lucy Phelps with contagious abandon, is a college drop-out on a campaign of hedonistic oblivion.
Theatre journalist Elaine Peake’s programme essay, “Evolution of the Epic,” seeks to locate Earthquakes in London in the tradition of epic theatre. Maybe one way into discussing this is to consider how different kinds of plays construct their characters. It seems true to say that epic theatre, rather than going into character and psychology, tends to emphasize more how characters’ actions relate to the play’s social and ideological concerns. Characters are defined more by their outward action rather than their inner world.3 It’s probably right to say that for the epic project to work dramatically – if the play is not to become simply an ideological sounding board – the play’s central characters need to be engaged in a struggle with the issues that are at stake. This struggle is surely also what allows us to identify with the characters in another way than the empathy Brechtwas working against. I think this is something that Earthquakes in London achieves very well.4
Lyn Gardener has had enough of a recurring theme she finds in Mike Bartlett’s plays – that “the baby boomers have mucked everything up for their kids.” I think one of Earthquakes in London’s achievements, though, is setting the theme of environmental crisis against a broader historical backdrop. The play’s assessment of the trajectory of change since 1970 is not optimistic. ‘This is how we got to where we are’ it explains – ‘what next?’
Earthquakes in London might have lost something for me in seeming to try and resolve this question in a final act sci-fi flash-forward sequence in which Freyer’s unborn child becomes the saviour of the planet.Lyn Gardener found this “teeth grindingly whimsical.”5 I wasn’t sure what to think about it. Were we supposed to be watching Freyer’s desperate, genre-bending hallucination of a happy ending here? Perhaps this was supposed to be implausible – a deus ex machina with a psychological twist, an unhappy happy ending that leaves us thinking.6
In its original production at the Cottlesloe Earthquakes in London was staged in semi-promenade format. EiL at the Arts was a fully seated proscenium arch play. I didn’t see the original production so it’s difficult to say with any certainty, but I do wonder how this change affected the way an audience experienced what was at times a very physical production. A seated audience is pretty much physically passive. Standing up one is in a higher energy state and free to move around in relation to both the performers and the rest of the audience. I also wonder what effect the introduction of the revolving catwalk had. I experienced this mechanical motion more as a visual spectacle rather than part of the play’s physicality.
Brecht, B. ‘The Street Scene: a Basic Model for an Epic Theatre,’ in Willet, J (ed) ‘Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic’ p.121 – 129, New York, 1964.
Michael Billington review of Earthquakes in London: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/aug/05/earthquakes-in-london-michael-billington
Lyn Gardener review of Earthquakes in London: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/oct/04/earthquakes-in-london-review
Interview with Rupert Goold, Explorer Magazine (free Cambridge events magazine) Issue 111, November 2011.
1 As producer Rupert Goold puts it, the play “is about climate change, and potentially the end of the world through our abuse of the environment.” Explorer Magazine (free Cambridge events magazine) Issue 111, November 2011.
2EiL exaggerates the texture of contemporary urban life – with it’s Tescos Express sandwidges on the go, its Starbucks coffee. And the play also shows us some of the pitfalls of modern communications – the missed calls and disjointed encounters. And there was a large helping of sheer exuberance in there too.
3 Perhaps we can say that epic theatre sacrifices individual psychology to achieve its aims. (I recently read Frazer Grace’s play Breakfast with Mugabe and the comparison with Earthquakes in London is instructive.)
4 Looking through the notes I made at the time I see one of the things I was thinking about was a distinction between two levels on which theatre communicates – the intellectual and the emotional. I found EiL absorbing intellectually, but unemotional on the whole. One thing I’d say about EiL is that we don’t get to spend much quality time with the characters. In part this may have to do with the play’s epic ambitions – characters in epic plays tend to be vehicles for ideas – and Brecht conceived of the epic in opposition to the mechanics of empathy of course. I do wonder, though, why the epic should exclude the possibility of relating to the characters emotionally/empathetically. I think the unrelenting pace and choppiness of EiL may be another factor. Perhaps stillness and silence are the realm in which emotion can flourish.
5 Whilst celebrating the success of the play as a whole Michael Billington expressed his reservations about the ending in similar terms – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/aug/05/earthquakes-in-london-michael-billington
6 On reflection I can see that without this fanciful flash-forward the play would have ended on a pretty grim note. Perhaps there is always a balance to be struck between entertainment and ideology – and perhaps a happy ending is generally a good thing.