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Theatre Review (London): Greenland at the National Theatre

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Climate change is the first scientific issue that’s become hopelessly entangled in the traditional right-left split of politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there’s been a big left-right split in reviews of the National Theatre’s new big production on the issue, Greenland. The Independent is the most positive, the Guardian’s moderately warm about it, the Telegraph scathing.

But I don’t think any of them had got it really right—this is really a very, very good show, an enrapturing staging of a fast-moving series of tales that crams an astonishing amount of detail and emotion into a tight, non-intervalled two hours.

Sure, if you like your plays as small, detailed exploration of individual psychological states, this isn’t for you. Characters and events are sketched rather than fleshed out, there’s little in the way of backstory, but this is a style, not a fault. And it is funny—really very funny, often.

Perhaps the biggest star of the showing is the staging—this is theatre as spectacle, but often moving spectacle. Lots of reviewers have commented on the polar bear, an hilarious interlude, but also notable are the Arctic guillemots, swooping around the auditorium in a curiously affecting trick of light that makes the emotional attraction of Michael Gould’s Arctic observer and lover of the birds, on stage with his youthful self, entirely comprehensible. Designer Bunny Christie deserves huge plaudits.

Director Bijan Sheibani marshalls astonishing changes of scene and mood beautifully—who’d have thought that a detailed explanation of the method of negotiation in international talks could be made visually interesting? And the conversion of airline check-in clerks in smart uniforms into resting guillemots, to be measured and manipulated by the carelessly loving scientists, then stalked by that polar bear, is a masterpiece of suggestion.

The play was co-authored by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, but the joins really don’t show; despite its multiple stories there is a sense of coherence in our confused world of young, angry, fearful campaigners (who struggle against the attractions of popular astrology at a festival), well-meaning bureaucrats who suffer from a touch of the Alastair Campbells, and naively optimistic developing world negotiators arriving at Copenhagen with the conviction that the urgency is so obvious, the humanitarian cause so striking, that something must work out.

There were a lot of empty seats last night, which is a real pity for a big, fine show. My recommendation is to go along and fill a couple, and enjoy the view that might be a future historian’s overview of our age.

The production continues at the National Theatre until April 4.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.