‘A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction’ review – Lydia West’s monologue of magnitude falls apart with fatalism


How much should we give in to fatalism around the climate crisis? In Headlong’s impressively inventive production (in that the play itself will tour, but the cast and creatives won’t), cheerily titled A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, actor Lydia West (of It’s A Sin and Years and Years) begins by asking for a show of hands as to whether we’ve had a good day, a great day, or we feel as though we’re living in a hellscape right now.

Pretty bleak, sure, but there’s a clever double meaning in the audience participation, in that West’s character Naomi – a flustered dramaturg from Zero Emissions Theatre Company who has to put on a show in the absence of the actors – stresses to us that we are all participants in the current climate crisis, some more than others. To be indifferent to the climate emergency is an active decision, and so there is some pressure to join in when West asks us to wiggle and wave our hands in the air as if we are ‘critters’ in an earlier period of the world’s history. Some of us are invited to dance on stage, while others are encouraged to share memories of their favourite trees. There’s a physicality to the piece which is beautifully emphasised by British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter Rachel Jones.

It is, therefore, imposing in its presentation – given the subject matter, it would be rather surprising and alarming if it wasn’t. West’s Naomi, so uneasy and awkward in setting out the logistics at the start, is punchy and pointed when delivering her research – punctuated by haunting beats and a crackling and clicking score from composer Paul Clark. She is in equal parts awestruck at the miracle of nature, enraged at its passive destruction, and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the loss of species over time.

We feel that too, for both Miranda Rose Hall’s script and Katie Mitchell’s direction come with an almost unfathomable magnitude. In taking us through a lengthy history of the Earth and its mass extinctions, before reeling off a list of various endangered or extinct species, the sheer scale of it all still manages to leave room for cleverly woven poetry, metaphors and motifs. The most impactful comes with an overarching theme of motherhood, not only in terms of Mother Nature, but in the generational trauma felt by climate change, the familial and communal bonds which sees a loss of any life impact us, and the world in which we live embracing and storing carbon “like a mother”. In spending time considering the maternal care the environment so often gives us, it’s damning we don’t do the same. “We take,” Hall writes, “without taking care”.

Then there’s the incredible nature of its staging by Mitchell, one entirely powered by several cyclists pedalling for the play’s 70-minute duration. After a couple of minutes in darkness, with nothing but the whirring of chains, the lights come on to two fluctuating numbers on a wall downstage, illustrating the amount of energy generated by the cyclists. It’s another extension of the communal theme, but also pretty damn amazing in its own right.

It’s evidently one of those shows which strives for five-star reviews by being as huge and enormous as possible, but that is not without its flaws. In another instance of empathising with Naomi, she says the onslaught of information “makes me want to hide”, but at the same time, she is aware she has a “responsibility”. We are all participants, after all. As we watch on, dealing with the details of previous mass extinctions and all the animal species no longer alive on this Earth, it can be easy for us to disengage from climate action – even if the medium in which the issue is communicated is absolutely engaging.

Thus, climate plays need to alert us to the present and apocalyptic danger presented to us by the heating of the planet, whilst offering practical solutions as to how we can take action so as to mitigate the risk of audiences experiencing ‘climate anxiety’ – where the threat and danger seems so significant and insurmountable that we don’t know where to begin and decide to do nothing instead. The exact same feeling described by Naomi about wanting to hide from it all is not too far removed from the dread the play evokes throughout. No solution is offered and for a play which is so emotionally charged and urgent, concluding without an equally potent call to action is not only underwhelming, but increases the likelihood of all-out despair.

What actually happens is a fatalistic acceptance of mass death, something Naomi says we haven’t quite got our head around even after witnessing it in the early days of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Summoning the Citizens of the World Choir to bless us with a “good death”, the play seems to end on the rather distressing note of “lol well have a nice life despite all of this”, which feels insincere against the backdrop of a production which is actively trying to be sustainable and eco-friendly in its staging.

That drive towards establishing more sustainable theatre is undeniably impressive, but soon falls apart when an expectation on the audience to do more to protect the climate themselves is absent in the text, replaced with a message which is the very antithesis of the creative team’s ethos of seeking smart solutions to environmental challenges.

A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction is now playing at the Barbican Theatre until 29 April, which will also be its third British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance.

It will then tour the UK from next month, playing at Coventry, Prescot, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Plymouth and finishing in York on 30 September.

Production Images: Helen Murray.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘A Play for the Living in the Time of Extinction’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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