How do you create urgency without too much despair?
It’s something I’ve spent a long time thinking about. I’m not sure I’ve yet to arrive at an answer, but April De Angelis’ new play Extinct does a fearsome job at probing the questions.
Can you talk about the climate emergency and bring an audience back to safe ground by the end? What role does theatre play in all this? These thoughts are on full display throughout the night at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
An 80-minute monologue, delivered fearlessly and ferociously by Kiran Landa, Extinct shifts through various forms. Part expansive science lecture, part intimate testimony of British Bengali woman, Suhayla, who returns to her family in Bangladesh and learns of the devastation they are already experiencing due to flooding. The piece dances between direct address and dystopian description, interspersing these stories with short snippets of our worst futures made flesh. The Thames barrier fails, flooding homes and the underground and leaving a trail of disease in its wake. Extreme violence erupting over food, alongside stockpiling and queuing for water rations, hits eerily close to home in the times of Covid-19. Even if we haven’t yet seen this play out, we sure as hell can imagine it now. In one scene, ration cards are removed when a woman criticises the government’s handling of the crisis. This could seem far fetched, I suggest recent developments over the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill put these possibilities within much closer reach than we think.
Weaved through it all is sprawling science covering everything from soil health to ocean plastic pollution. Fires, floods and hurricanes abound, alongside time taken to highlight the egregious recent murders of Indigenous environmental activists and their importance as stewards of our land. When you hear it like this the scale is biblical, particularly in light of recent fires in the Gulf of Mexico that truly resembled hell arriving on earth.
All of this is coupled with pared-back staging, a smart choice when the material is so complex. Kiran is clothed in plain black, more of a messenger than a fleshed-out, singular character. Her identity shifts between actor representing playwright, actor delivering monologue, and embodiment of the Bangladeshi women whose story she’s sharing, all backed by a haunting, ephemeral soundscape. There’s a meta, self-aware element to how this is presented, but the information is more important than any singular character’s story.
Hovering above us is there is also a huge white screen, intermittently filled with bold Extinction Rebellion graphics, scientific explanations and quotes from activists and scientists. Its imposing nature reminds us that this is information we can’t turn away from. As Landa herself states, there is no ‘away’ for the problems to go. Away is our future.
Many of us know the science already, so what does theatre do in this context? It gives voice to the howl; allows us to release the scream over the shit we’re in (as the text puts it). Landa is not just knowledgeable in her delivery, she’s visceral. Her body is taut as a bowstring, inhabiting the anger of a tightening fist. Towards the end of the show, she plunges into a bathtub, before pouring oil over herself and the stage while explaining the UK government’s complicity with the fossil fuel industry. Through it all she’s frenetic and gasping, undeniable and urgent. The play states early on that climate change is a hyper-object, so large it can’t be comprehended. This performance does an excellent job at suggesting how we should all be feeling, and living up to that task in each performance is no easy feat.
So, how do you create urgency without too much despair?
I’m afraid this isn’t the show that’s going to give you the answers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It will make you cry, it will make you scream, and it won’t offer a step by step guide to fixing things.
What you have to do, as an audience member, is choose to let it galvanise you. It is fair criticism to suggest the show should offer advice on what people should do after the lights come back up; how to direct the energy Landa spends 80 minutes building towards action that will make a difference. But when the audience member is someone like me, I know that my role on the internet is to suggest potential answers to questions De Angelis leaves lingering in the air.
I would recommend people see this play if they can, but, more importantly, I would urge them to let it push them to righteous anger, not paralysing despair (though the latter is tempting). In the UK joining local activists groups, turning out for protests and supporting campaigns like Paid to Pollute is a good place to start, ensuring political action alongside the lifestyle choices we all strive to continually improve.
The play ends with ten simple words, which I hope everyone will carry into action beyond their evening at the theatre. Let it be a mantra for us all.
Unless we address it together, we will face it alone.
Photos courtesy of The Other Richard