Above – Harriet Gordon Anderson, Ariadne Sgouros, Brandon McClelland, Charles Wu & Abbie Lee Lewis. Cover – Ariadne Sgouros & Harriet Gordon Anderson. Photos – Brett Boardman

I was shocked to hear in David Finnigan’s thoughtful new play at the Belvoir Theatre that The Great Barrier Reef is on the brink of disappearing forever. I probably shouldn’t have been. The consequences of climate change have been evident for decades, and I thought I knew quite a lot about it. It’s a fact that is hard to take in. Many of us naively thought that we could fix it.

This is just one of many climate concerns raised in Scenes from the Climate Era, yet David Finnigan’s fascinating play is neither histrionic nor didactic. Finnigan has spent his career merging climate activism with his theatre practice. Along the way, he has learnt how to present this serious topic in a way that captures an audience’s imagination.

Even though there is now consensus that climate change is an existential threat, this play left me feeling that, like frogs being slowly boiled in water, we still haven’t grasped the gravity of the situation and that its seriousness still hasn’t sunk into our collective consciousness.

The play is full of scenarios that show the depth of Finnigan’s understanding. Through a series of fifty short scenes that are in turn comic, tragic and matter of fact, Finnigan explores the many ways climate change affects us and the planet. Moving backwards and forwards through the past, present and the apocalyptic future, he points to the political failures that held us back, the climate impacts we already feel, and what’s ahead.

Fifty scenes in 80 minutes could get messy, but Carissa Licciardello’s snappy direction makes the transitions between them seamless. The tone and style of each story are very clear and beautifully performed by the excellent ensemble, who uniformly give lively and truthful performances.

One scene reflects the inability of even some scientists in the 1980s to accept the devastating environmental modelling of what was to come. Another takes us down memory lane to the Kyoto Conference of 1997 when the Howard Government’s Environment Minister Robert Hill stymied the Kyoto Protocol with his last-minute demand for emissions exemptions for Australia.

There are moments of hope that demonstrate awe-inspiring environmental resilience.

Abbie Lee Lewis tells the story of how ancient Gunditjmara people in Victoria constructed ingeniously engineered eel traps in the rivers that are so old they predate Stonehenge. This ancient system disappeared with colonisation but was recently rediscovered when bushfires destroyed the vegetation around the river. It remains a perfect eco-management system.

Contemporary stories range from the Orwellian to the tragic. One scene shows how climate information is often airbrushed so it is palatable to the public. A producer briefs a scientist before her television interview not to use any statistics as, in her opinion, they turn off the audience, not to alarm the audience with gloomy scenarios, and to provide a cheerful and helpful suggestion about how to address the problem. People don’t like bad news, after all. Black comedy at its best.

Another is a moving monologue by a firefighter, beautifully performed by Harriet Gordon Anderson. She tells of fighting the devastating 2019-20 fires that engulfed much of NSW and how they took everyone by surprise. The Fire Brigade saw none of the usual warning signs and was totally blindsided by the ferocity and extent of the blazes.

By far the most touching scene is a man, played by Brandon McClelland, who tenderly keeps watch over a single, lonely frog, the last of its species – an “endling”.

The stories from the future foretell wild scenes of unbearable heat, terrible floods and others of furious protests.

The most chilling idea for me came from the explanation of the title. Instead of considering climate change as something fixable, Finnigan sees it as an era, like the Renaissance or Medieval Era, that may last hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to minimise its effect but, in his view, we must also be alert to ways we can mitigate the devastation.

Finnigan’s nuanced message may speak to individual audience members differently. It doesn’t assume a single attitudinal position and talks across the generations. For some, it may spark a sense of urgency and prick the bubble of their complacency. For others, it might provide insights into how to deal with growing climate anxiety or distress.

Whatever meaning you might take, it was a compelling evening in the theatre.

 

Event details

Belvoir presents
Scenes from the Climate Era
by David Finnigan

Director Carissa Licciardello

Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre NSW
Dates: 27 May – 25 June 2023
Tickets: $72 – $52
Bookings: belvoir.com.au

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