‘Scenes from a Climate Era’ a play for the times

June 9, 2023
Scenes from a climate era
'Scenes from a Climate Era' runs until June 25. Photo: Supplied

Scenes from a Climate Era
Written by David Finnigan
Directed by Carissa Licciardello
Belvoir St Theatre (Sydney)
Until June 25

“The sands of time are quicksands ... so much can sink into them without a trace.”

— Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Belvoir St Theatre’s Scenes from a Climate Era draws the audience into its quicksand, zigzagging through time and offering up a tapestry of more than 50 short plays in its tight 80-minute run time.

David Finnigan, a playwright from Ngunnawal country, has spent the past 20 years working with climate and Earth-system scientists, producing successful plays, including: Kill Climate Deniers (2014) and You’re Safe Til 2024 (2022). Finnigan’s parents are scientists, and it’s a heritage that shines through in the play’s commentary on communicating climate change — from focus groups in “coal country” to a newsroom editor lecturing on the importance of “hopeful” reporting.

The theatrical structure, which tracks back and forth in scenes from 1983–2042, matches the driving thesis: relating to climate change is non-linear and driven in ways both culturally informed and intimately personal. These ways of relating are distilled into four categories: denial, solutions, despair and hope — an oscillating emotional range that reflects scenes of us back to an audience of us.

With an almost empty stage, director Carissa Licciardello keeps attention on the cast, who are tireless and determined, seamless in what are demanding transitions. One moment we are euphoric in a Berlin nightclub, the next despairing as the last silver-crested green tree frog calls for a mate. It’s a sentiment powerfully captured in the post performance question and answer by cast member Abie-Lee Lewis: “If we’re not laughing, we’re crying.”

Most clever is the production’s flattening of time — past and present are often indistinguishable from future risks. This is a refreshing representation amongst a broader public discourse that likes to cast risk as far-off and distant, apportioning blame and perpetuating business as usual.

The future scenes are all present possibilities, taken from a raft of geo-engineering fixes currently being discussed: from spraying sulphur from planes to reflect sunlight before it reaches our atmosphere, to growing artificial coral reefs to continue harvesting fish — and the list goes on.

In one future scene, a child ponders: “Sometimes I think that we’ve made the whole earth into a hospice. It’s too late to save these creatures. The most we can do is make them as comfortable as possible on their way out of the world.” This is a reminder of what political ecologist Rosemary-Claire Collard refers to as the “quick, quick, slow unravelling of animal life”, where disaster capitalism breeds multiple temporalities of loss and violence.

Ultimately, the production validates our coping emotions without downplaying the climate era’s severity, stirring in its own brand of forward-back déjà vu.

Responding to an audience member unhappy with what they deemed a “happy ending”, Lewis said: “My people have gone through genocide; my mob have specifically gone through genocide; we’re living proof that we can survive it.” Denial, solutions, despair, hope.

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