[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/7422?ns=guardian&pageName=Can+theatre+do+anything+about+climate+change%3F+%7C+Steve+Waters%3AArticle%3A1316512&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CClimate+change+%28Environment%29%2CEnvironment&c6=Steve+Waters&c7=09-Dec-09&c8=1316512&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]Forget stories about global apocalypse. We need drama that gets real about global warming, from Cockermouth to Copenhagen
When I decided to set my play The Contingency Plan in the near future, I knew there was a danger of being outpaced by events. What I didn't anticipate was that the environmental events the play speculated about would come into existence at such a speed.
The story follows a glaciologist, Will Paxton, catapulted into government by a terrible flood in Bristol, and displacing a rather complacent government advisor in the process. The debate at the play's heart is not about whether man-made climate change exists, but how it will manifest itself and how soon.
Theatre thrives on topicality. Academics are able to date Macbeth from allusions to the gunpowder plot in the porter scene. Perhaps in the future, historians will gratefully turn to the English theatrical repertoire of 2009 for context of the times, using Enron, Shades, The Great Game and Mixed Up North as invaluable accounts of the day. But for most of us, climate change is still something on the to-do list, rather than a real and present danger.
Too often, attempts to dramatise our environmental situation leap from out of our current muddle and into stark scenarios of catastrophe. Mad Max got there first with its post-oil dystopia, while Roland Emmerich has taken out a franchise on disaster porn. Even sublime works such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road jump from our present confusion into the morally simplified landscape of survivalism. As Robert Butler argued on this very blog, it's only this year, with plays from Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling to Nick Payne's brilliant comedy If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, that we're starting to show climate change as something happening in the present, rather than as a distant prospect.
The Contingency Plan was first staged at London's Bush theatre during a mild spring; the year went on to become one of the hottest on record, but people in this country can be forgiven for imagining the worst was still a long way off. Then came the Cockermouth floods. I felt a queasy sense of recognition at the scenes playing out in Cumbria, which resembled the scenarios in the play.
Having begun writing in 2008, before the Copenhagen summit, the hopes then for an international climate-change treaty seemed to give the lie to the play's political pessimism. Now, as we approach the conference, with the play's scenario of accelerated melting in the Antarctic corroborated by the latest science, my fears as a writer may not have come to pass, but in every other respect they've been horribly confirmed.
This is the awful conundrum of writing about the worst – you want more than anything for it not to come true, yet at the same time, as it does so, you feel vindicated. The best part of me hopes to see my play proved irrelevant or a bleak period piece; the worst wants to see its nightmares borne out.
Ezra Pound famously described literature as "news that stays news". Yet the sheer tempo at which contemporary history moves tends to undermine our sense of the facts. Nowadays, it seems that simply describing the world has become a political act.
• The Contingency Plan is broadcast on Radio 3 at 8pm on Sunday 13 December 2009. Also, on 15 and 18 December, the Bush theatre is holding two readings of the play.
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Guardian: Can theatre do anything about climate change? | Steve Waters
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