Headlong Theatre Company - Cambridge Arts Theatre - Friday 11th 2011
This new play by Mike Bartlett has grand ambitions. Sweeping back and forth across time and in its visionary scope. The back ground to this drama, styled as if in the Brechtian tradition, is the personal and political origins and consequences of climate change. Three sisters, all daughters of an absent but influential climate change scientist, live disparate and hence mutually antagonistic lifestyles. The eldest,Sarah, is a Lib Dem Coalition minister responsible for the environment. The middle daughter, Freya is an anxious,highly strung and very reluctant Mother. The youngest,Jasmine, is a head in the sand hedonist. Their father in the late 60's allowed his environmental research into the possible effects of widespread air travel to be compromised by corporate sponsorship. His personal integrity as both a scientist and a human being, is forever haunted by this self-betrayal. In the eyes of the daughters he's estranged from. he's a complete shit. As this family dynamic is played out, we see how this has influenced their personal ethics, ideals and life choices.
Headlong, under the artistic direction of Rupert Goold, has developed a reputation for boldly executed dramas tackling thorny contemporary issues, such as in the multiple award winning - Enron. All of which are staged with great colour, verve and innovative punch. The original London production had the audience in the midst of the actors and staging. For this National Theatre Touring production, this has been adapted to suit the smaller, more traditional proscenium arched regional theatre. Earthquakes In London, makes extensive use of a double stage revolve. that allows swift and frequently overlapping scenes. This multi-layered visual narrative style frequently achieves quite startling dramatic effects, and gives the production its primary visual dynamism.
The ambitions of both play and the staging of it, are indeed EPIC. At over three hours long, the production needs to keep on the move. In the midst of its sprawling narrative, there were inevitably moments when the production lost focus and momentum. This was often when it fell fowl of its own artistic pretensions, with too many story lines clogging up the narrative arteries like cholesterol. As if we were being forced to eat too much all at once. At times the staging held your breath, whilst the drama caught up.
As the play hurtled towards its finish, it reminded me of a speeding train trying desperately to come to a halt at its designated station, with all its passengers and carriages still intact. It shuddered,stopping and starting like a Mahler Symphony, through a sequence of possible endings. Just when you're prepared for the end, up popped yet another scene. When it finally reached its conclusion, Bartlett had to sidestep the immediacy of the personal, economic, political and practical costs of climate catastrophe, in order to introduce a more mythic level of resolution in the year 2525 (Yes, as in the 60's song by Zager & Evans) In the midst of all this,what punchline there was. got lost.
These quibbles aside, it's undoubtedly a brave, hugely enjoyable and a thought provoking production. One that's rightly been described as carnivalesque in style. It has several truly memorable moments, often found in seemingly fleeting and inconsequential scenes. The Mother's party on Parliament Hill where they are all dressed like Anna Wintour pushing their designer prams and singing about Happiness. Or the scene with the woman who loved the shop Libertys. So much so, that she changed her name to Liberty. Got a job working for Libertys and chooses her cloths so they compliment the Liberty colours. Demonstrating simply how Western Consumer Individualism encourages our self-preoccupation and whims - at liberty to be whatever we want to be. However contrived, bogus or fairytale that may be. This hunger for individual self expression being fed by the very globalised commerce that is having such a huge environmental effect.
The best example of multi-layered visual narrative had Freya the pregnant daughter in birthing agony on a hospital stretcher, in the background, her brother in law and younger sister cavorting drunkenly to a track by Arcade Fire, in the middle ground,whilst the elder sister says goodbye to a lobbyist for an airplane manufacturer she's just had sex with, in the foreground. This showed the personal desperation, infidelity and moral indifference that was earth-shatteringly sad.
The multiple story lines left no time to touch more than lightly on the many issues it raises. Just one quick sideways swipe, rather than a carefully aimed hit at its target. In this sense it didn't quite match its Brectian antecedents. It was never entirely clear what the overarching point Earthquakes In London was trying to make, other than WE ARE ALL DOOMED! IN A BIG WAY!! It ticked all the usual boxes, and pointed a wagging finger at all the usual targets. To be fair, it was being more honest than polemical (polemic often makes for stillborn or deathly drama) Bartlett, like us, has no answers or quick fixes. We're in a mess, and no one knows really if we are really capable of getting ourselves out of it. In the play,the daughters father makes it thunderously clear, that we are already too late. The earthquakes of chaos and catastrophe are already rumbling in the distance.