Conversations on climate change are exhausting. To those outside of environmental activist circles, tackling an impending crisis which threatens the entire world is so overwhelming that the idea of taking individual action leads some to feel helpless. ‘Climate anxiety’ is the name given to such a sentiment, and Fehinti Balogun – the young Black climate campaigner speaking directly to us in Complicité’s latest production, Can I Live? – is certainly feeling it too.
Even in the age of coronavirus, where many theatre productions have been forced behind the safety of a computer screen, “the complicity between performer and audience” which underpins both theatrical productions and Complicité as a company is still present here, because we’ve all felt that feeling of dread at some point around climate change. For some, it has been the spark needed to attend protests, for others, it’s an alienating and intimidating defeatism which has pushed them away from engaging with climate justice. With Balogun beginning the filmed play in his ‘home’, from a place of distrust – a feeling which appeals to us all at the moment, irrespective of the political issue at hand – it’s easy for us to empathise and connect with his energy.
“If I’m honest, these promises seem dishonest,” says the activist in one of the play’s first musical pieces, accompanied by facts, soundbites and figures we’ve heard countless times before: the 1.5C increase, the plan to fix things by 2050, “reduce, reuse, recycle” and more. These, like some of the lines in the rap and spoken word, are repetitive, but there is an argument that in its grandiosity, such integral points have been lost and once again, need bringing to the fore. Here, Balogun does it in stylish exuberance – the use of a Politics Live parody as the foundation for a political rap battle is particularly enjoyable. From heavy beats to solemn blues, the rhythm set in the play’s musical elements connect with the – often fast – pace of the actor’s thought process and movement across the Barbican Theatre (directed by Daniel Bailey and Simon McBurney). Impressive visual effects are ethereal and astronomical in nature, before we crash back to earth with a close-up. The zooming in on Balogun’s face and grounding in his character reminding us that the exploration of “what is climate change” concerns an intersectionality which is an important part of the activist’s background, and indeed the wider climate justice movement.
After all, it’s a call-to-action led by the likes of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and environmentalist David Attenborough. Part of Balogun’s exasperation and contemplation comes with the fact that Black people “don’t see themselves in the movement”, and that the climate crisis is as much a global, ecological problem as it is a class, race and capitalist problem. In one of his most compelling arguments in the hour-long film, Balogun points out the ways in which minorities are shut out of the issue. Global warming would drive up food prices and hit those on lower incomes; those in such a financial position cannot necessarily afford the greener alternatives to everyday living; and Black people are at greater risk of persecution by UK police officers if they engage in protests. Barriers such as these make apathy or inaction, as mentioned previously, all the more convincing, when people simply want to ‘put food on the table’ and meet their basic needs.
It isn’t mentioned in Balogun’s conversations with his friends onstage about the impact of capitalism, but it’s enough to get the viewer thinking: is a capitalist government’s austerity agenda – making the need for people to ‘make ends meet’ all the more necessary – a distraction from wider political issues? Is the fundamental requirement to provide food for ourselves preventing us from questioning a political ideology which not only is responsible for such a predicament, but the current climate crisis (given that 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions, for example). The moment that Balogun reveals that this ideology underpins not just climate change, but other forms of societal oppression, is the moment that climate activism is once against transferred back to the individual watching. Except now, unlike the very beginning of the production, we are not hopeless or disengaged.
When climate justice is presented as an extension to other forms of social justice, such as the fight against ableism and classism, it’s becomes a case for viewers to think of ways to expand their current resistance to this discrimination to incorporate environmentalist issues. It’s this which is one of Balogun’s most powerful points in this film, and is helped by the actor later going on to direct us to individuals who are already doing important work on climate activism. I may have appeared critical of the repetitive nature of some of Can I Live‘s arguments above, but its main points about environmental campaigning need repeating – namely that community is the antidote to the intimidating individuality.
Can I Live? is now streaming online, internationally, as part of a digital tour running until 28 November. Captioned and audio described versions of the film are also available.
Production Images: David Hewitt.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Can I Live?’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.