Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Ten Billion, Royal Court

Review: Ten Billion, Royal Court

The world, says Stephen Emmott, is caput. Or, at least, given current rates of global population growth, it will be. In the next two, maybe three, decades, the number of people on the planet will pass ten billion with catastrophic effects.

Emmott is an environmental scientist and, I think its fair to say, he’s towards the pessimistic end of the environmental scientist spectrum. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more pessimistic position: “I think we’re fucked,” he says, blunt as a brick wall.

His argument is terribly convincing. Horribly, awfully, grimly convincing. It’s best summed up with a quotation from the late Gore Vidal: “Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies, or the virus dies, or both die.”

Emmott talks you through the process. He starts with a look at how we got here – to 7 billion in 2012 – thanks to the various technological advances that have increased our control over our habitat during the last 150 odd years. He then details the impact of such systems of production on the environment and extrapolates into the future, positing a series of vicious circles. We will need more of something, but that thing itself will grow harder and harder to come by.

Essentially, Emmott frames the whole system in economic terms, to show that as a species we are living on massive credit. A single bar of chocolate, for example, requires 27,000 litres of water for its production. By the time a car has been made, it has already had a significant enough impact on the environment that driving it is negligible. These resources cost the planet, but it’s future generations that will pick up the bill. Our current mode of existence is unsustainable. And, short of behavioural or political changes so radical that they’re unthinkable, it will continue to be so until the end, because we are a species in denial, failing to investigate the possible slim, slim hopes for averting the impending crisis.

But enough of playing messenger. Emmott’s argument is detailed elsewhere, so get thee to Google for the stats and speculation. Onstage at the Royal Court Upstairs, Emmott is delivering a tremendously potent lecture, directed and co-devised by theatre director Katie Mitchell, in a theatre context. Forget the squabbles about whether a lecture can be classed as theatre or not. What we watch is 100% lecture and 100% theatre at the same time, and it absolutely thrives on the duality.

Emmott stands in a “frightening accurate reproduction” of his office in Cambridge. On one wall is a whiteboard, which doubles up as a projector screen for some neatly clarifying animated diagrams and annotations. Giles Cadle’s design shows us this room in a standard naturalistic configuration, namely, end-on and looking into the corner. But Emmott does not act naturalistically. He lectures at us, making eye contact and addressing us as one imagines he would students in a lecture hall. Indeed, he lays it out at the start: “I’m a scientist, not an actor.” He’s not entirely at ease onstage; he trips over words and his memory glitches.

Between these two – performance and set – there is an extraordinary tension. Both pull the piece in opposite directions. They rub against each other and the friction causes a real electric charge. Because we watch lectures and naturalistic theatre in diametrically opposite ways. One, we presume, sets out to tell the truth; the other relies on illusion and pretence. Or, to stress the opposition, naturalistic theatre requires us to suspend our disbelief, while academic or scientific enquiry demands scepticism.

Here, the most curious reversal takes place. The set, which we might ordinarily buy into (as it were), wears its own problematic status very openly. It is a replica of an existent and proclaims its own fakeness. (This synthetic fakeness also, by the way, begs the very question of man-made production that is at the heart of Emmott’s lecture.) In its very precision, which would usually make a set more convincing, it becomes an anti-naturalistic set. A reason to doubt. And that spreads to Emmott’s lecture so that inexpert theatregoers, who might ordinarily accept the scholar’s lecture on trust of authority, suddenly turn arch sceptics. We are set in a mode of doubting and look for cracks in Emmott’s argument.

Undoubtedly they exist. You can see the construction in his argument – huge imposing numbers tossed casually around without a sense of scale or time – and our ingrained, but unjustified, leap to assume that the worst is human extinction. Actually, the terrible thing that Emmott’s arguments point to is an enormous reduction in the number of human beings on the planet – either through brutal competition or some singular catastrophe – which, with a twist into rationalism, doesn’t seem like the end of the world. Emmott seems like a man resigned to this fate: it won’t be nice, but it will be necessary.

There’s more to this doubt that added scientific rigour. In an academic context, as I have said, to doubt is the done thing. In theatre, it is not and, as such, it feels perverse, almost guilt-ridden. In Ten Billion, that is extraordinarily potent, because our desire to doubt, our search for loopholes and loose ends, are easier than accepting his statement. We are cast as the inhabitants of Ibsen’s spa-town in An Enemy of the People and Emmott as Dr Stockman. He tells us a truth that we don’t want to hear; one that threatens our way of life, that we know we ought to – indeed, need to – heed, but doing so seems a sacrifice too far.

And you know what? Emmott’s included in that. Once again, the clue’s in the set; the recreation of his own way of life, which is as culpable and complicit as any of ours. There are two laptops and an aerosol spray. There are coffee cups at however many litres of water per cupful. There are numerous plastic lanyards where one would have sufficed; a white board where a blackboard would do, and so on. That doesn’t negate anything he says, nor should he be burned at the stake for hypocrisy. It just goes to show that anyone that dismisses Ten Billion as ‘just as lecture’ is ‘just plain wrong’. Mitchell has – as is her way – worked wonders.

Photograph: Christophe Raynaud de Lage / Festival d’Avignon

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