Kyoto review – sheer theatrical magic in the RSC’s Swan Theatre

The world premiere production from the team behind The Jungle continues until 13 July

374941 Kyoto production photos June 2024 2024 Web use
The cast of Kyoto, © Manuel Harlan

Everything about this new play should spell disaster. It’s nearly three hours long, it delves into enormous and potentially boring detail about global wrangling over the climate crisis, and it has as its central character an American pro-oil lobbyist lawyer with almost no redeeming features. Heck, even his wife struggles to articulate any positive qualities.

But in the deft hands of co-writers Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson and co-directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, Kyoto takes unpromising raw material and transforms it into something truly remarkable. A bit like oil, in fact.

This is an epic production of a fundamentally important story, but there’s plenty in that to offer pitfalls in lesser hands. Behind-the-scenes negotiations at climate conferences across the world could be desperately dry, the nitpicking over every comma and bracket of an agreement simply tedious. Instead, thanks to some stunning staging and a relentlessly forward-driving narrative, it’s gripping from start to finish.

There’s some proper theatrical magic about what the foursome have achieved, reinforced by set designer Miriam Buether’s authentically official round-table stage, Aideen Malone’s judicious lighting and Christopher Reid’s intelligent sound design. The action offers real edge-of-your-seat tension, with the added dimension that every decision, every trade-off and every concession puts the world’s future at stake. That and the fact that it’s a true story.

Indeed, the many humorous touches which leaven the brilliantly realised history are almost too painful to laugh at: the horror of the hidden agendas is too huge to allow for levity. But Ferdy Roberts’s John Prescott and Jorge Bosch as the conference chairman, increasingly desperate to get an agreement over the line, manage to lead the search for laughs without undermining the appalling truth behind the headlines.

374854 Kyoto production photos June 2024 2024 Web use
The cast of Kyoto, © Manuel Harlan

And there’s more neat footwork here, too. It would be all too easy to preach to the converted about the perils of fossil fuels and the foulness of the oil giants, but Murphy and Robertson’s masterstroke is to make their defender the protagonist. Up front and centre, the lobbying Don Pearlman takes us through every step of the horse-trading, confident that ten years of backstabbing and manipulation will win out, like some latter-day Richard III, before facing his Bosworth at the eleventh hour in Japan.

Stephen Kunken’s towering performance in the role should win him every plaudit going. Like Shakespeare’s villain, he’s plausible, convincing – likeable, even – and wins us over with the force of his personality, spurring him towards victory in spite of his obvious wrongness. By putting him at the heart of the play, the writers imply our own complicity in the reckless plundering of the planet, and it’s a superb evisceration of all our continued complacency.

Kyoto is drama with a deeply powerful message, delivered with sleight of hand and considerable theatricality, and disguised in a hugely entertaining production that deserves a much bigger life long after this short run in Stratford.

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Closed: 13 July 2024