Eco-worrier: Johnny Flynn as Ben in Richard Bean’s “The Heretic”
The stage has discovered climate change: don’t expect a let-up any time soon. After an early success with Earthquakes in London last year, the National has another go at the threat to poor old mother earth with Greenland.
It’s penned by a committee of four youngish playwrights. Trouble is, it feels like it. Not even the combined talents of Moira Buffini (Handbagged) and Matt Charman (The Observer) can save this episodic sprawl.
Greenland’s message is about as subtle as a Greenpeace handout. “The ice is melting, mum, and I’m really scared,” cries a character. Oh, do get a grip.
The arguments and tensions around climate change should make for dramatic tension. Here though, we start from the firm premise that 95 per cent of scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming and the play never really shows any curiosity about its conviction that Armageddon is only a few decades away.
We’re supposed to identify with the strife of a couple where one is passionately environmental and the other frequents Starbucks. Alas, the domestic Green goddess is so irksome she practically makes you want to go out and buy a patio heater in the interval.
It’s a shame about the ideological monotony, as the play has accomplished directors in Bijan Sheibani and Ben Power. They make the Lyttleton’s cavernous stage look otherworldly, whether lighting the violet-tinged wastes of the North Pole with a ghostly shimmer or blasting the stalls with a shower of paper rain. Recyled, naturally.
There’s only one touching moment, when the scientist studying the impact of warming on guillemots watches his younger self pick up a tiny bird frozen to death by the premature flight of its mother.
A shouty character boycotting a supermarket is suspended in a shopping trolley above the stage — presumably in the hope that hydraulics can compensate for lack of dramatics.
At the heart of this mess is the Copenhagen summit of 2009. It’s hard enough to make summits interesting: harder still if you feature one that is a year and a half old and a grand failure.
I liked the spiky love affair involving a scientist lugging his laptop round Copenhagen in pursuit of the manic female spin-doctor. But since the star-crossed lovers are as partisan as everyone else in Greenland, it’s hard to give a toss whether they get it together before the planet overheats.
The Heretic at the Royal Court is a different creature: a quirky, inquiring joy of a piece. It’s helped by a top-notch lead. Juliet Stevenson is Diane, a redbrick tutor who finds her earth sciences faculty fashionable, just as her data on rising sea-levels in the Maldives are producing inconveniently optimistic results for a department seeking investment from an insurance company.
Diane is locked into perma-strife with her anorexic daughter (Lydia Wilson): “Are you joining Greenpeace to save the world or as part of an ongoing project to destroy your mother?”
Soon she’s under disciplinary proceedings after a sceptical blast on Newsnight, and in trouble with her ethically invertebrate faculty boss (and old lover) Kevin.
James Fleet in the role exudes the dank unease of middle age, veering between officiousness at work and desperation in the evening: “Give me a joint, I’ve had a difficult last ten years.” A pitch-perfect performance.
Richard Bean’s script is also choc-full of classy rants to enjoy. In her button-up cardies and navy trousers, Stevenson carries herself with the coiled annoyance of an academic who’s had just about enough of research targets and funding hoops.
But she’s bossy and needs a foil, which she gets in the combat-trousered Ben, her new first-year student. His rendition of a dopey (in every sense) 19-year-old veering between sharp curiosity and hipster argot will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has spawned a teenager since the millennium.
Bean has had a chequered time lately with a much-criticised treatment of English racism in England People Very Nice, but his awkward-squad credentials shine here. The Heretic is a play that understands how convictions are wired into fears, hopes and quirks beyond rationality. I dig, as Ben would say.
After the greenery, the glamour. Few men I know fail to worship at the shrine of Keira Knightley, the meltingly gorgeous star of Atonement and just about everything else on the big screen in the past five years. Few women don’t venerate Elisabeth Moss’s anxious, ambitious Peggy in TV’s Mad Men. So The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s Thirties play of malign intrigue at a New England girls’ school brings star quality to the Comedy Theatre.
Knightley, in her second major theatre role, is Karen, a prickly teacher accused by a vengeful pupil of a lesbian affair with a colleague. Shocking stuff at the time, when The Children’s Hour was deemed “unfit for public consumption”, rather harder to get worked up about now.
The action only comes to life when Mary (Bryony Hannah), the child-nemesis, is on stage. She’s the real star here, an unhappy, sleeve-plucking sociopath who bullies her classmate into backing her story of Sapphic goings-on. As Martha, Moss deftly conveys her hidden attraction to her friend.
As tragedy unfolds, Karen laments the perfidy of the “lie with the ounce of truth in it”. We never really know if she reciprocates the desire, though she seems in something of a hurry to give up her fiancé (Tobias Menzies), who is only trying to help.
One of the flaws in Hellman’s creaky play is Karen’s bloodless part. Knightley turns in a competent performance, but not one that arouses a swell of pity or anger at her plight. It all falls apart in the final scene when she has to do the heavy lifting — and can’t sustain a credible emotional register.
Ellen Burstyn tries her best as Mary’s credulous grandmother, a New England grande dame out of her depth, but the play is dead long before the final gunshot. At the curtain call, I could swear I glimpsed relief on Keira’s lovely features that it was over for the night.