Won’t somebody please think of the children? Well, Dawn King’s The Trials at the Donmar Warehouse tries its best to, creating a dystopian future in which they must decide whether adults are guilty or not guilty of complicity in terms of the climate crisis in which they find themselves. Think 12 Angry Men and The Welkin but with a load of under-developed arguments about climate justice chucked in.
A shame, because there’s no denying the premise is genuinely thought-provoking – an expansion of the usual line cited by decision-makers and activists about considering future generations in green policy. Now they’re in the docks: an advertiser (Nigel Lindsay), a playwright (Lucy Cohu), and a guilt-ridden employee at a corporation whose record isn’t exactly squeaky clean (Sharon Small). Oh, and a guilty verdict means certain death, just to keep things cheery.
A running time of just over an hour and a half doesn’t give much time for detail – least of all when it comes to adding depth to all 12 children in the Donmar Local production, cast as the “talent of the future”.
Amelia’s (Elise Alexandre) subplot around her guilt at condemning adults to death doesn’t really progress further; Chris (Rue Millwood) only seems to be presented as a trans person keen to go to the gender-neutral toilets and make out with Noah (Heartstopper’s Joe Locke) off-stage; Adnan’s only character trait is that he’s asthmatic (Jairaj Varsani) and aside from doodling on a piece of paper, Zoe mostly asks what certain words mean (Taya Tower).
The tragedy – well, apart from, y’know, the climate crisis – is that these are impressive upcoming actors undermined by poor writing. Tomasz (Charlie Reid) is the provocative juror with no real interest in the deliberations, but not even purposefully so. His interjections are jarring and stilted, and the idea of him being disinterested only lasts until he dreams of colder months and ice cream in unnecessary bursts of nostalgia which eats into their 15-minute discussion time. There’s perhaps an irony to children criticising adults for inaction on global warming in times of urgency, but failing to decide on a verdict, but that’s for the audience to figure out – amongst other questions as to the main argument the play is making.
Its running around in circles is exhausting: the three defendants will give surface-level explorations of the ease at which we put the climate on the back burner due to other more ‘immediate’ priorities, the distress at trying to take on a nonplussed political system, and climate guilt respectively. Then, Noah and Chris will go into the toilet for long periods of time; Mohammad (Francis Dourado) will plead for every defendant to be found innocent and primary juror Ren (Honor Neafcey) will struggle to restore order while Tomasz derails things.
Ultimately, the young actors do well with what they are given. So slow is the pacing for the most part that the loud bursts of lighting from Jai Morjaria and impressive video projections from Nina Dunn are the few more dynamic elements of this confused production. Georgia Lowe’s set of stacked up seats and benches, along with the blue tables you would find in a typical classroom, is unremarkable.
It is, however, an impressive stage debut for Locke, who plays a role in stark contrast to the gentle Charlie Spring of Heartstopper by regularly dropping curse words and harbouring a deep resentment for the process and everyone else in a single stare. Fellow Heartstopper actor Will Gao is likeable and amusing as budding poet and ‘Climate Defence Force’ member Xander (even though his hinted feelings towards Ren never really go anywhere), and Ren herself shines in an emotional plot twist towards the end of the story.
Yet for a play which seems to examine and critique the meaningless and ineffective commitments of those of the current generation, the defeatist dystopia offered up by King doesn’t exactly offer much difference. It had opportunities to touch upon the catastrophe’s impact on Black and disabled people, for example, but mostly seemed to focus on warning against eco-fascism – the idea that sentencing adults to death will at least alleviate the pressure on resources by reducing the population. It’s compounded by the acidic Gabi (Jowana El-Daouk), whose eagerness to brand every adult a “dinosaur” over their actions reads as a parody of “woke” which doesn’t say much other than it being another term to potentially shut down debate on serious issues.
After last month’s heatwave, The Trials could well have been an opportunity to provide smart arguments and solutions to the ever-worsening climate crisis while examining the actions of past generations, but it slips into depressing helplessness, even when most dystopia at least contains characters opposed to what’s unfolding and offer a counter-case for the new society. Here, King raises the question of just what exactly is ‘enough’ in terms of individual climate action in the eyes of others and their high standards, and simply suggests that’s impossible to reach.
To describe this short and confused play as an elaborate satire on inaction and climate shame would be too generous to the writing and, like the children’s deliberations themselves, incredibly unproductive.
The Trials is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 August.
Captioned, audio described and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances will take place on 25, 26 and 27 August respectively.
Production Images: Helen Murray.