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Review Round-up: Frosty Reception for Greenland

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The National Theatre has joined the climate change debate by staging the multi-authored Greenland, which premiered in the NT Lyttelton this week (1 February 2011, previews from 25 January).

A documentary theatre piece about planetary “uncertainty, confusion and the future of everything”, Greenland is written by no fewer than four playwrights - Moira Buffini, Penelope Skinner, Jack Thorne and Matt Charman – with NT associates Bijan Sheibani and Ben Power as director and dramaturg respectively.

The writing team spent six months interviewing key individuals from the worlds of science, politics, business and philosophy to create a piece that combines the factual and theatrical as several separate but connected narratives collide to form “a provocative response to the most urgent questions of our time”.

With an ensemble cast including Michael Gould, Isabella Laughland, Amanda Lawrence, Tunji Lucas, Lyndsey Marshal, Peter McDonald and Rhys Rusbatch, Greenland continues in rep until 2 April 2011.

Michael Coveney

"Right, somebody said, it’s high time we sat down and wrote a play about climate change. Greenland is the heavily ‘curated’ (by Ben Power) result, and it’s skilful, enjoyable in odd moments and strikingly staged on a vast, empty Lyttelton stage by Bijan Sheibani. But it’s dead at the centre and therefore dead in the water. Four playwrights have been dragooned into supplying interwoven narratives, and you couldn’t possibly tell, or care much, whether Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner or Jack Thorne had written this bit or that … there’s something glumly predictable about the relationship between a (female) Labour politician and a (male) climate change expert at the Copenhagen conference, and there’s a strict limit on how excited one can be in a theatre about green house gas emissions.”

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

“Oh dear. It's rare for the National to come a cropper with new writing but every so often a howler like the late, unlamented Fram or Greenland slips through the quality control nets … It's the most under-energised piece of theatre I've seen in months … A couple of spurious romantic sub-sub plots are tacked on and a whole-cast dance routine to the song ‘Come Fly With Me’ seems a desperate bid to make Greenland the Enron of environmental Armageddon. If this had to be put on at all - and I would heartily suggest that the Edinburgh Fringe would have been a far better place - the Lyttelton isn't the auditorium for it … If you're still awake by the time the animatronic polar bear pitches up, well done.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"If the powers-that-be had any sense, they would have revived Steve Waters’ superb double bill on the subject, The Contingency Plan, first staged in 2009 at the Bush and richly deserving a second outing. Instead, the NT has engaged a committee of four writers … to cobble something together, and the dismaying results have now been dumped on to the Lyttelton stage in one of the shrillest and most irritating shows in recent memory … Like Fraser in Dad’s Army, Greenland repeatedly warns that we are doomed, and that unless we mend our ways, sharpish, it will serve us jolly well right. Needless to say, climate-change sceptics aren’t given a voice in either the play or the hectoring programme notes.”

Michael Billington

"What we get is a somewhat confusing, multi-perspective mosaic. I wouldn't deny that it is well intentioned and researched. Bunny Christie, one of our most imaginative designers, has also created on stage a world on the verge of disintegration. And director Bijan Sheibani marshals his role-swapping, 15-strong ensemble with great skill and comes up with some powerful effects. But this two-hour show is unlikely to shift anyone's perspective. Those concerned over climate change will have their worst fears confirmed, and deniers are unlikely to find their prejudices dented. I have a hunch, in fact, that the plethora of pre-show platforms will generate as much drama as we find in a play that stabs the conscience without offering a perceptible point of view.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“How do you sell a play about climate change? One answer might be to devise a model of a moving, snuffling polar bear which edges slowly on stage during a scene set in the Arctic circle, and have it sniff the inside leg of a petrified young geographer. Such a moment is one of numerous stunts in Bijan Sheibani’’s production of Moira Buffini’s earnest play, Greenland … The show - whose programme is a work of laughable propaganda - fails because it hectors and lectures rather than showing. Some of the political re-creation scenes could nearly have been written by Sir David Hare but he might have lent the politics greater worldliness and balance … Climate change, for those of us who understand little science, is as much an act of faith as many religions. There is a paradox that it should be promoted so clunkily by a National Theatre which has so often attacked Christianity. The polar bear raises a laugh, though.”

Paul Taylor

"Greenland … is not so much a play as an intellectual extravaganza about the implications of global warming. It is brilliantly directed by new NT recruit, Bijan Sheibani, and is stunningly well designed by Bunny Christie … The evening is undeniably stimulating. It brings home vividly how the debate is not on a level playing field and comes stuffed with historical baggage … And yet. Call me an unreconstructed old Leavisite, but I registered throughout a lack of what used to be called, in such circles, ‘felt life’. As with David Hare's The Power of Yes about the financial crisis, I thought it too much like a public-service broadcast that did not tell one much that is new.”

Libby Purves
The Times

"There’s a great polar bear: lifesize, lovingly crafted and operated. It doesn’t stay long, but after the first interminable hour its advent is such a relief that we applaud. Otherwise, I was startled by just how downright dreary an evening in the Lyttelton can be. Even with the fabulous technology at the director Bijan Sheibani’s command — real rain, thunder, snow, trapdoors, abseiling, a flying supermarket trolley — it plods … It feels like a schools show, except that Theatre in Education knows to keep things moving. At the pace this is played, any self-respecting year-eight group would be chucking paper darts … There is a brief Enron-esque moment when all the delegates do a little dance, but it feels hideously dated: full of references to how Labour will win the election … I am no eco-denier. What is awful is that the first big play on the subject should be both shrill and dull. Only the bear truly convinces, and it doesn’t even get a curtain call.”


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