We Need To Talk About Greenland (and A Snake in the Grass)

This Tuesday (8th March) I went to see Greenland, at the National Theatre. A grand play about climate change, by some fashionable writers? My spider sense was already tingling, but I figured I should check it out. Well…what can one say? What’s the point of this play? As much as I disliked The Heretic, it’s attempt to use a climate change denier as a protagonist was at least an interesting (if ultimately underused) idea. Here we have a play at the National, telling its audience how bad things are and will get.  I don’t like getting lectured with information that has long been available, without any exploration of the intricacies. Sure, it name checks a few of them. The idea that it is history, not ability that will destroy us in the end and not allow us to change is worth exploring…but instead we are saddled with a couple of love stories we aren’t really interested in, and a story set out on the Arctic ice that could’ve been beautiful by itself. Instead, we get a prettily directed, but ultimately surface play where every character is a cipher. We have:

– A young woman who ditches her PGCE to become an activist. Her parents are upset about this, naturally. Her engagement with the issues is as fleeting and frustrating as her relationship with fellow activist Daffyd.

– A scientist in Exeter, who knows how bad it really all is.

– A government advisor for Ed Milliband who has a fling with the scientist, but doesn’t want to bring children into the world he is claiming we will end up with.

– A clever young man at a Cambridge interview, who ultimately becomes an older man who observes guillemot migration and mating patterns in the Arctic.

– Two wisecracking members of a delegation from Malia.

The passionate young man gets your support, but only the later  had the potential to run with the most interesting theme in the play: that of history impeding the future. If they’re going to be dramatising, why not have a good look at the disgruntlement between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ countries? It’s ripe for investigation and would be dramatically interesting but Greenland does very little with it. Ok, sorry…this is me willing a play to be something it isn’t – so let me take it for what it is.

To give it credit, the actors do well with what they are given. Their delivery was emotive and funny as necessary (though there was barely a chuckle in the entire two hours). Some of the moments were wonderful – the much talked about polar bear was a treat – but this play preaches, drags and ultimately, bores. I realise it’s tricky to balance a Big Issue and Dramatic Intrigue, and I, admittedly, wouldn’t know how I’d do it.

By all accounts, Steve Waters’ 2009 plays On The Beach and Resilience (together named and produced as The Contingency Plan) are the benchmarks for well written climate plays. I didn’t get a chance to see them at the Bush when they were on, but will almost certainly buy the playtext and have a gander.


Moving on, this week I also saw Alan Aykbourn’s 2002 play A Snake in the Grass revived at a new theatre in Notting Hill, The Print Room.

Who am I to knock Alan Aykbourn? He’s the second most performed playwright in this country, as I understand it (although having 60+ plays probably helps that). The play was (an attempted) mix of horror, black comedy, and psychological thriller. The set up is this: a woman returns to the family estate after the death of her father, to find her sister (who stayed to look after her ailing father and suffered for it) caught up in a blackmail scam with her father’s nurse. I can’t really talk too much about the rest of plot without giving away, but be assured that hijinx ensues and NOTHING is as it seems…

I don’t think I can bring myself to be doubly vitriolic in this post, so I will simply say  that the set was my favourite part of the whole deal: well conceived and designed – the play is entirely performed on an old tennis court, and the space holds and reflects the unease of the genre mix better than the text. Anyway! Sod me – the rest of the audience loved it, and I’m glad they had a good night. Pour moi, I enjoyed listening to and seeing my playgoing partner far more than the production itself.

On The Print Room itself, it’s an interesting new theatre.  A small space, no doubt (only around 70 seats, and it doesn’t have it’s own bar, instead handing out 15% vouchers for the very expensive pub across the road), but technically well equipped. I liked the aesthetic of the place, and was quite happy to see a small theatre that wasn’t rammed on top of a pub.

I don’t know how much I’ll be heading to the place, but I feel it’ll serve its area well. Could be a nice one for a date too, as long as you wait for something good to be performed. I suppose a terrible play is better, since it gives you more to talk about later, but that depends how much you prefer ranting over the darting looks into each others eyes, trying to work out whether you’ll be calling one taxi or two.

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