Can theatre do anything about climate change? There is something so utterly perfect about this question, so completely of its time, that the article from which it comes, written by Steve Waters in the Guardian theatre blog, should be preserved in a time capsule, so that it may be studied by historians of the future.
Waters’ words express the very particular hubris of the political artist. Sure, climate change is already in the news every day; journalists, activists, politicians and experts are devoting themselves to it; sure, An Inconvenient Truth already reached millions of viewers, grossing nearly $50 million; but if only I, the immortal artist, would produce a play about it in a small London theatre, then things could really get moving. Waters even admits, incredibly, that part of him hopes that the effects of climate change will be really terrible, to demonstrate the importance of his play!
To have a vastly inflated sense of your own importance is one thing, but the delusions of artists like Waters are really the perfect storm of self-righteousness, opportunism and hypocrisy. When you write a play about climate change, you work will make no impact on the issue; but the issue, on the other hand, can be expected to have some impact on your ticket sales. Topical issue plays are written, at least in part, for the same reason that McDonald’s fills happy meals with tie-in merchandise from the latest blockbuster: not so the meals will sell the movie, but so the movie will sell the meals.
In order to lend authority to his claim that theatre “thrives on topicality,” Waters mentions that “academics are able to date Macbeth from allusions to the gunpowder plot.” If we ignore for a moment that this is only a theory (based almost entirely on Shakespeare’s use of the word “equivocation”), has anyone mentioned to Waters that the events of Macbeth occurred around 400 years before it was written? Maybe Shakespeare was topical and maybe he wasn’t; but clearly, the bulk of his sustenance came from another source.