Archive | March, 2011

Comedy In Climate Change: The Heretic

15 Mar

Johnny Flynn's Ben ponders carbon levels

My motive for going to see this play was less than pure: an unhealthy fascination for Johnny Flynn, a tousled haired youth adeptly riding the current wave of folk revival on YouTube. I didn’t really know what the play was about when I took my seat, and certainly didn’t have any expectations.

Which is perhaps why I was so entertained by The Heretic. Ostensibly about global warming, the first half of the play doesn’t move from Dr Diane Cassell’s (Juliet Stevenson) university room, from which she continues her research into rising – or rather not rising – sea levels. Stevenson perfectly plays the put-upon teacher, colleague and mother; a beacon of commonsense in a sea of radical, ego-maniacal conflict.

Orbiting around her, the small cast (five in total) work brilliantly together, jumping on the end of each others’ lines with wonderful timing. Particularly funny in his matter-of-factness was the towering caretaker (played by Adrian Hood). Slapstick is often belittled for being too easy, but Hood’s physical accuracy is just as hard to pull off as any witty line and the reward, certainly in this performance, can be jaw-achingly universal.

Writer Richard Bean plays with human belief structures. Climate change becomes a religion (hence the ‘heretic’) and then a political ideology – something you can choose to believe in, or not. Dr Cassell struggles to teach her students (and indeed her colleagues) the difference between fact and belief; science and religion. But it becomes clear that even her scientific rationality cannot be totally divorced from personal motivations.

The caretaker studies Dr Cassell's death threat

It’s described as a ‘black comedy’ in the programme, but I found the comedy more a deep shade of blue. The few opportunities for genuine emotion were always sabotaged by the insincerity of the characters. And all the pseudo-intellectual banter rendered them quite distant at times in their pretentiousness; not the kind of characters to easily engender empathy in the audience.

All in all, the greatest triumph, I thought, was the interplay between high-brow subjects and low-brow delivery. The meeting of witty intellectualism and physical slapstick. It showed you don’t have to be clever to be funny, but neither are you unfunny if you’re clever.

I’d like to think that even if I’d read the press about this play and built up some expectation, I’d still have enjoyed The Heretic.

The Heretic is playing at The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square until 19th March 2011.