Belvoir’s Scenes from the Climate Era makes its audience complicit in the action on stage, giving the vast disaster of climate change a human scale. By Patrick Lau.

Scenes from the Climate Era

A group of performers sit in chairs around a desk. They're all looking down at another performer, who is flat on their back.
The cast of Scenes from the Climate Era.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Belvoir St Theatre’s Scenes from the Climate Era is unsettling: the kind of play that ends without the absolution of catharsis, instead demanding reflection and discussion. It’s also quite funny. Written by David Finnigan and directed by Carissa Licciardello, Climate Era bills itself as “over 50 small plays that catch the exhilaration, frustration and fascination of living in interesting times”.

This might sound like a night of preachy revue theatre – throwaway skits and cutaway gags, with a bit of propaganda thrown in – but strong writing and careful directorial handling produce something much deeper. An impressive cast, set and lighting design contribute to a production that both entertains and provokes.

Writer Finnigan’s portfolio is climate-obsessed. A 2018 piece titled Kill Climate Deniers unsurprisingly drew plenty of attention, and all of his work has a strong thread of environmental awareness. Climate Era forms part of You’re Safe, a six-year cycle of performance pieces about planetary transformation and environmental collapse.

Individual scenes in Climate Era are comic and poignant, by turns or at the same time. We sit vigil by a lone frog – the last of its species – joyful and despondent as it burbles its mating call. A pilot, exhilarated after a mission to dump sunlight-reflecting chemicals into the atmosphere, parties with a ketamine connoisseur. Friends gather around a table and debate the merits of their musical preferences. At times Finnigan reaches for a deep engagement with the science or politics or philosophy of climate change, but Climate Era’s solid grounding in human life and basis in reality gives it a human context.

Each vignette lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes at most, so there’s little room to settle into any of them. Just as you’re getting to grips with the immense implications and moral weight of the situations in which these characters find themselves, and their responses and choices, you’re tossed elsewhere – into a new catastrophe or a new triumph.

You are given new information that upends your world view, or you simply find yourself in the middle of another person’s everyday experience. With every breath, one character declares, I’m ingesting plastic. I’m falling in love with the plastic in my veins. When you go home tonight, another character directs us, you must harness the power of a single lentil to actively dismantle consumerism. It’s 1997, says yet another character, and Australia’s Environment minister, Robert Hill, has just booby-trapped the Kyoto Protocol, and he’s going to get away with it.

The effect could be overwhelming if the play were longer than its tight 80-minute duration. The rapid mood swings can be discomfiting and disorienting. The whole has an emotional arc, however, and the thematic thread of climate change remains – either as the central idea or in the background – throughout each scene. Each is autonomous and atomised, a tiny vignette that can stand as its own narrative, and yet the cumulative effect is to build a portrait of an era, rich with detail.

Formally, Climate Era emulates Brecht’s Fear and Loathing in the Third Reich, a series of vignettes about life under the Nazi regime. Each episode magnifies little moments in little lives, turning them into what Fredric Jameson calls “a complete object of contemplation and delectation in its own right”. Seen as a series of tableaus, they show how strange and unnatural is the context of their reality.

The experience of watching resembles the water torture drip-feed of a TikTok doomscroll session, a montage of horror and non sequitur. Memes – rather than motifs – emerge and echo, like an algorithmic chain of referents. Phrases and images recur across scenes – a lapel mic, an unheard song – as links without subjective or narrative significance. These images might look similar to connection, between characters or snapshots in time, and that connection might look similar to meaning, but Finnigan leaves it to the audience to determine the relationship between elements of the play, the discrete moments of history it portrays and the viewer’s place within them.

But while the overall effect is estrangement, the immediacy of the production keeps the audience from disconnecting. In large part that’s to the credit of the excellent cast. Climate Era asks a lot of its actors, who must snap from scene to scene, and thankfully everyone here is firing: sharp and synchronised.

Brandon McClelland steeps each of his characters in his port-wine timbre, and his plummy affability draws the biggest laughs on opening night. But each of the actors (Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Abbie-Lee Lewis, Ariadne Sgouros, Charles Wu) takes full advantage of the range of characters they’re offered: earning pathos in one moment, then seconds later executing a volte-face to bring the audience to a comic scene. A number of lines on opening night had to be repeated over the roar of laughter.

Nick Schlieper’s excellent set and lighting design are stripped back, with a few chairs and a small table the only props and dressing available to the actors for most of the performance. That makes the handful of interventions and some subtle lighting work all the more powerful.

Climate Era represents a thematic pivot for director Licciardello, whose recent works at Belvoir, where she holds a residency, have focused on the production and performance of gender. Stylistically, it also seems to represent a director more in command of her powers. Her 2021 adaptation of A Room of One’s Own lacked the confidence to let the monologue stand on the strength of Virginia Woolf’s words and Anita Hegh’s performance. A 2022 adaptation of the John Cassavetes film Opening Night made some interesting, and some unfortunate, choices in the translation from screen to stage.

While those earlier plays showed a feeling for the intentions of the material, they had a tendency to overcook the production. Licciardello’s restraint in Climate Era lets the writing, the actors and the stage breathe.

In Climate Era, Finnigan dissects the hyperobject of climate change into discrete moments in the epic of everyday life, slicing it into its smallest parts and conducting aesthetic surgery until his audience can make sense of it. He discomfits viewers by making them complicit in the spectacle. It’s a play full of funny jokes and sad moments, but these aren’t simply drawing room scenes or high melodrama. Climate change is relevant to every moment lived across generations, Finnigan argues, and it’s necessary to carry that knowledge out of the theatre and back into reality.

Scenes from the Climate Era is playing at Belvoir, Sydney, until June 25.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Interesting times".

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