Deborah Warner: To the ends of the Earth

When theatre director Deborah Warner travelled to the Arctic, she discovered the hard, shattering truth about climate change – and now has to put it on stage
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The Independent Culture

" ... [Kay] has a splinter of glass in his heart, and another in his eye. These must come out or he'll stay bewitched, and the Snow Queen will keep her hold over him forever!"

"The Snow Queen", Hans Christian Andersen

Svalbard. The cold coast, mythical home of the Snow Queen's palace in Hans Christian Andersen's story of "The Snow Queen". For a long time this was a land beyond the realm of maps, an imagined fantastical place of such purity that it was thought by some to be an icy Eden. A tiny-looking land on the World Atlas I borrowed, six weeks ago, when I was invited by Cape Farewell to join their 2010 expedition to the high Arctic; an invitation which nothing could make me refuse, not even my fear of sea-sickness.

Cape Farewell invites artists to the Arctic in the hope that they will engage creatively with climate-science, and find new ways to communicate the story. It is a complicated story. The media like to pitch one scientist against another in the war of sound bites – because mere sound bites cannot accommodate the necessarily complex scientific information. But the climate-change consensus is very clear; 95 per cent of scientists cannot be wrong, although politicians, who deal in the short term, may not wish to hear the truth of what they say.

The artists and scientists on our expedition came from England, Russia and Canada. We walked in the footsteps of Antony Gormley, Ian McEwan and Rachel Whiteread, to name but a few: Ian McEwan's Solar was inspired by his 2005 Cape Farewell journey, so too Rachel Whiteread's Tate Modern/Turbine Hall piece Embankment. Founded by David Buckland in 2001, the project is mainly funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain and is, quite simply, unique and remarkable. It represents a crucial seam of dialogue in the complex climate discussion.

Our three-week expedition was made up of four scientists (actively engaged in daily experiments), 15 artists and four crew; we shared tiny cabins and every waking hour aboard the 100-year old sailing boat Noorderlicht. The plan had been to sail around Svalbard, but an unexpected amount of loose sea-ice blocked our way. Our revised itinerary took us to the Monaco Glacier in the north (actually 7933'N 1230'E), which means – to the non-nautical – the edge of the world. The ancients must have thought it the gates to the underworld. It's hard to describe this remarkable place, but here goes.

Imagine a theatre, or perhaps a diorama, with a floor of impossibly clear water skimmed by ice. On top float icebergs – barely moving, for there is no wind – amidst mountains, glacier walls, sea and sky; because everything is reflected together here. Only the shocking blue of the glacier's interior holds the eye and allows it to dwell. The line between reflection and reality is clear – if you work to find it – but this is a huge jigsaw made of ice printed on mirror.

The glacier's walls are impossible to measure; only a ship or human figure will start to tell you something of its scale. You can sail towards it for three hours and by the time you find yourself sailing beneath it, you are well within its power and grasp, and you feel its danger.

Everything is mirror and prism and facet and glint and sparkle. It's overwhelming. The eye's appetite becomes ravenous, addicted to the visual clarity. It's a drug that makes you high, and wears you out with looking. If a scientist could monitor the eye movement as it absorbs and checks, it would outstrip any REM data. Everywhere you look is fascinating, absorbing and so, so sharp.

Then there is the SOUND.

Sailing under this ice-cliff is dangerous. Every few minutes there is a crack, a roar and a deep rumble, as some vast ice chamber collapses within the glacier. Put that fall on the face of the glacier, and our boat would have vanished without trace. I was on the shore when one of these explosions occurred; a few minutes later, in uncanny silence, the waters were drawn out to sea, and then returned in a long wave along the beach; a baby tsunami, worked by the hand of a God whose heart is cold, who cares not a jot for our attention and survival, but whose domain's survival is in our hands.

This was the heart of my Arctic journey. Early explorers to this place would have felt that they had reached the walls at the edge of the world. I felt I'd come, literally, to the heart of the matter.

So, these glacier walls are the front line – the citadel's walls. They have been some 10,000 years in the making and in some cases just 10 years in the melting. The Jacobsen Glacier in Greenland is pouring out its contents at a jaw-dropping 40 metres a day. These are museums of ice containing 10,000 years of our history in air bubbles, dust and microbes trapped as the ice was laid down. They tell the story of the Industrial Revolution and its ongoing impact. They cannot cope with the world we have made. They are coming down and fast.

Does this matter? Well, yes, if we care for the habitat of polar bears, arctic foxes and hundreds of unique species of flower. Yes, if we care that with the melting of glaciers will come great floods and then great drought. Yes, if we care what happens to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Africa and a lot of the poorer world. It may not matter to us in England, as we seem at last to be enjoying real winters and real summers, but we will have to spend more of our money in coastal defence and Europe will not remain unaffected by the mass migration of climate refugees. Then there is the threat of our planet becoming a dust bowl in some hellish future.

If poetry is prayer, this was certainly a place that made one want to leave an offering. I had worried a great deal about what books to bring; finally settling for a tiny edition of the Sonnets and a copy of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid. I'd also brought with me a recording we made of Fiona Shaw's performance of "The Waste Land", half hoping I might find a way to complete a tour which has taken that work around the globe. One afternoon a Zodiac landing vessel, carrying ten of us, insulated against the Arctic cold, waterproofed against a rough sea spray, landed at Kinnvika Bay. We made our way along the beach to a collection of huts comprising the Swedish/ Finnish research station. Built in 1958, and once the last settlement before the North Pole, it is now an abandoned ghost town of eerie power.

In a freezing bleached-wood hut, with an Arctic wind sounding outside, we played "The Waste Land" to a silent and invisible audience. Curtains flapped at open windows as a camera rolled on empty rooms. While the real Fiona Shaw rehearsed John Gabriel Borkman in Dublin, her recorded voice echoed through derelict corridors and out to the Arctic landscape beyond – a desert of snow-capped mountains, ice-dusted beaches, littered with frost-shattered shingle, pale white bird skulls, silvered driftwood and the giant paw prints of a lone polar bear. During the 33 minutes of the spectral performance our crew sheltered at a 200-metre distance in an abandoned sauna hut. At the end, the applause of the ghostly Wilton's audience faded again to the utter silence of the Arctic tundra. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" haunted my dreams for many nights to come.

This was a trip to an icy Eden, a place that has the taste of the forbidden about it; staggeringly beautiful and fully equipped with its own man-made serpent. A threatened paradise where man was not made to be, but whose insane appetites are undermining its very walls.

Now I'm back. I've had work to do in Milan, Dublin and London, but my head and heart are elsewhere. I've been bewitched. I can't get this kaleidoscope of ice out of my eyes. Some mad ice queen has captured and bewitched me. Possessed, like Kay in "The Snow Queen", I've begun to see things differently – from another perspective. I've returned with an idea for a large-scale installation. This may represent a change in direction for me, which is an exciting and unexpected fruit of this odyssey.

I also return full of admiration for this impressive and enlightened project. I'm no stranger to the creative potential inherent in taking a group of artists out of their home environment; festivals are founded on this: Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Salzburg, the RSC – all places where artists are working away from home, free from the distractions of ordinary life. Beauty has long been the inspiration of artists, but here we have the complex paradox which lies at the heart of the Cape Farewell project; we cannot look on melting glaciers as the Lakeland poets looked on the Lakes. A lyrical response to the sheer beauty of it (although it often silenced us) was just not possible. Here we have to be in relation to the coiled serpent. Climate change is real – in this environment it demands respect and brings us to our senses.

We've witnessed the wonder of glaciers and seen the retreat in action. Most shockingly, we heard it. Stripped of our daily routines, our focus was intense. We put our lives on hold to be in daily contact with the beauty of a landscape whose fragility became more apparent every day.

I've seen what I never expected to see and heard what I had not thought to hear. Waking in the night in three different hotel bedrooms this past week, I have thought I was back in the Arctic, felt the rocking of the boat and seen the mirror play of the glaciers dancing around the room. I hope this dreaming and this inspiration will carry my new project forward quickly. It won't save the world, but it may help tell others the climate-change story. The glaciers have held our stories a very long time and in this fragile moment it is time we properly heard theirs.

Deborah Warner's ENO production of 'Death in Venice' plays at La Scala, Milan in March. Her new production of Sheridan's 'The School for Scandal' is at the Barbican, London EC2 in May