Richard Bean’s intellectually rigorous The Heretic is a bracing change in an era of dumbed-down entertainment. But that doesn’t make it perfect. As the play was partly prompted by scientific inaccuracies in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth we can assume that the various theories and arguments it puts forward will endure scrutiny. But there are so many points of view that, in the end, the audience cannot verify all of them and has to fall back on the old standby of putting trust in the character we like most.
This is Dr. Diane Cassell (played with academic perception by Cate Hamer) who challenges the scientific basis of current populist beliefs on climate change and so threatens a lucrative contract at her university, puts her job at risk and attracts death threats. Hamer makes Cassell a daunting but movingly vulnerable character. She shows someone committed to objective facts rather than the clichéd fanatic who is so obsessed by her beliefs she is blind to consequences or interested only in theory rather than application. Cassell is only too aware of the risks to which she has been exposed and, rather than celebrating the cerebral advances of science, just enjoys the benefits of driving a bloody big car.
The rational aspects of the play are satisfactory but the emotional and dramatic ones less so. Sophie Robinson is completely convincing as Cassell’s daughter Pheobe . Her contrary and spirited approach is just the right response to such a demanding mother. Yet, until the contrivances of the plot require the revelation, there is no real indication of physical conflict between parent and child. The need to demonstrate the impossibility of living up to well-meaning ‘Green’ principles compels Ciaran Kellgren to adopt a vague ‘slacker’ characterisation for pupil Ben Shotter. It’s a fine comic performance but does suggest that Bean might be just as manipulative as the people he sets out to criticise.
Presently audiences are all too aware of how apparently trivial things can provoke violent reactions. But director Chris Honer does not seem interested in the death threat sub plot. The play is used to develop arguments and provoke discussion but drama is lacking. Even Hitchcock would struggle to draw suspense from a scene in which the characters sit shouting out statistics while looking at their laptops. A few graphics flashing on the walls might have at least given some visual interest. Contrivances in the second act – Cassell holds no grudge against a former lover who had her sacked- are a distraction.
The Heretic is a flawed but very funny and thought provoking play and we always need more of those.