Review Round-up: Mixed marks for professorial Ten BillionDate: 20 July 2012
Ten Billion opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs two days ago (18 July 2012, previews from 10 July), directed by Katie Mitchell.
It's not often at a press night that you ask the critic next to you who they're writing for and receive the reply "the New Scientist". But such was the case at the Royal Court Upstairs, where Katie Mitchell is the surprise director of possibly the most down-to-earth, no-nonsense production you'll see all year... Comparing the population crisis to a pending asteroid collision, Emmott scythes down everything from governments who refuse to take unpopular but necessary action to Brian Cox raving about the importance of the Higgs Boson discovery. In presenting the material in such a straightforward way, there is a sense that Mitchell has eschewed the usual elements of theatricality lest they undermine the central message. The implications of that will no doubt be explored in more detail elsewhere, but it's refreshing to witness such an unfussy marriage of science and art. And there is a sharp irony here, that Emmott acknowledges, in that it was largely the advancements made possible by science that got us into this crisis in the first place. But whether those same advancements can now undo the damage seems doubtful. So what's the answer? In the words of Larkin: Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf / Get out as early as you can / And don't have any kids yourself.
This is one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre. Stephen Emmott, an acclaimed scientist, stands in a re-creation of his cluttered Cambridge office and delivers, under Katie Mitchell's astute direction, an illustrated 60-minute talk on the consequences of over-population. He tells us that we are facing "an unprecedented planetary emergency" and, under his calm exterior, you sense a concealed fury at our failure to address the crisis... Some will argue this is a lecture, not theatre. But the distinction seems to me nonsensical. David Hare gave us his perception of Israel and Palestine in Via Dolorosa. London's Tricycle Theatre has staged edited versions of public inquiries such as those into the Metropolitan police's handling of the Stephen Lawrence case and Bloody Sunday. And the Finborough in Earl's Court is presenting The Fear of Breathing based on verbatim reports from inside Syria. Theatre is whatever we want to be and gains immeasurably from engaging with momentous political, social or scientific issues. Overpopulation is too big a subject to be ignored and what is impressive is that Professor Emmott argues his case with an implacable logic. He is quiet, humane and deeply concerned and when he says, at the end, "I think we're fucked" you have to believe him.
Experimental director Katie Mitchell has done many daring things in her time but never before has she stuck a scientist on stage, given him a laptop and a projector and let him tell us, in the immortal words of Private Frazer from Dad's Army, that we're all doomed. Yet this is what she does with Stephen Emmott, Professor of Com putational Science at Oxford and scientific adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It's not theatre in any real sense but a lecture gripping in its awful predictions, as the world's population hurtles unchecked towards 10 billion, from a mere two billion in 1930. It's rather like a useful recap of all those Radio 4 programmes we've half-listened to over the years, and then felt guilty for not giving them our full attention... The potential solutions Emmott half-heartedly offers near the end of the 65 minutes are mere drops in the ocean, which itself will soon be covering Bangladesh. In 88 years' time this piece will require a sequel, 28 Billion, which will be the world's population in 2100 if we carry on at our current reproductive rate.
Downstairs on the Royal Court main-stage, Stephen Mangan is pretending to be a man having a baby, in a satirical great leap forward for human progress. Upstairs, a solitary scientist, Professor Stephen Emmott - who heads Microsoft's Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge, among other distinguished things - is pleading with us to think twice about having any babies at all. Emmott is so concerned about where the planet is headed thanks to the rocketing global population - three billion in 1960, seven billion last year, and projected to brush 10 billion by as early as the middle of this century - that he has given up precious research time, and braved the footlights, to expound his grim message... Full marks to Emmott for doing his best even if it is, by his own admission, too little, too late and even if he glaringly fails to offer up his preferred drastic solutions to these inconvenient truths. Might there be a case for euthanasia or a kiddie cull? What does he think? What does anyone else think? I realise time is of the essence but couldn't the Royal Court have lent his doomy expertise to a few playwrights before they vanish along with the rest of their species? It's going to take much more than this to make waves.