Extinct at Theatre Royal Stratford East – review
April De Angelis pens a new piece to reopen Theatre Royal Stratford East
The facts about climate change are laid startlingly bare in April De Angelis' impassioned new monologue. Delivered adroitly by Kiran Landa, the 80-minute piece harangues us about our rapidly warming planet, and how earth is currently experiencing "the sixth great extinction" while we are doing precious little about it. Our artic ice and rainforests are tipping into a death spiral, from which they will likely never recover, meat consumption is at unsustainable levels, the oceans are bearing the brunt of overheating and plastic pollution, and meanwhile the government continues to subsidise oil.
The crisis facing the planet is apocalyptic, and De Angelis draws on a range of testimony from direct victims to fellow Extinction Rebellion activists to press home the urgency of the situation. It's when she mixes the facts with fiction to illustrate her point that things go slightly awry. I'm not convinced we need to see an imagined queue for food in an overheated future London to be aware that this is an all-too real possibility. And when this scenario – which bookends the piece – includes an Orwellian government confiscating ration cards for dissent, it feels like the pudding is being decidedly over-egged.
On the facts front, there is little here that a regular reader of a reputable newspaper will not already know. And it's hardly new ground - the production feels startlingly similar to the Katie Mitchell-directed Ten Billion, which was at the Royal Court nine years ago. But that is not to say its message does not bear repeating. The truth is – in Greta Thunberg's famous words, which are included – our house is on fire, so why aren't we doing something about it?
My concern is that De Angelis is preaching to the choir while providing little by way of practical suggestion for improvement. At the end we briefly see some quotations - projected on the large overhead screen - that tell us young people would respond better if they could imagine the world they want to see rather than fear the one they're in. That advice could have been heeded here. At one point Landa tells us the solutions to the climate crisis are already within our reach. Great! So what are they?
Director and dramaturg Kirsty Housley's atmospheric production includes some very innovative use of video and sound (credit also to video designer Nina Dunn and sound designer Melanie Wilson). When Landa voices the story of Abani, a Bangladesh resident at the epicentre of the impact of global warming, she delivers her words directly to camera before breaking character while the image continues on screen. This meta approach keeps everything grounded; in the way that Mitchell did with Ten Billion (which focused on population expansion), it seems to say ‘this issue is too important to pretend there's a fourth wall'.
Landa, who plays De Angelis, delivers her material with palpable passion - notably in a moving coup de theatre towards the end. And it's this passion, both in the words and their execution, that ultimately makes Extinct worthwhile. It refuses to compromise. Yes, we have heard these facts before, and attitudes to the evils of fossil fuels feel like they've become as hardened as attitudes to the evils of racism. But there will always be detractors, and even for those of us firmly in the choir, it's worth being reminded that the global crisis we are currently immersed in is a mere frivolity compared to the climate implosion fast coming our way.