The Heretic, Royal Court, London
Monday 14 February 2011
The National Theatre's current extravaganza about climate change, Greenland, shows the drawbacks of trying to write a play by committee (there are four authors involved).
In contrast, The Heretic, the Royal Court's first foray into this theatrically tricky subject, has been produced on his tod by Richard Bean, one of our drama's most wittily maverick voices.
It's a riotous comedy about another nonconformist, Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson), who, as a leading academic in the Earth sciences department of a Yorkshire university, specialises in measuring sea levels in the Maldives. Since these have not risen in the last 20 years, she has become a climate-change sceptic. As a result, she gets death threats from the Sacred Earth Militia. She's locked in wrangles with her anorexic Greenpeace daughter (Lydia Wilson) and eventually she is suspended by Kevin, her head of department and former lover (James Fleet). Reluctantly, though, she finds herself rather taken by a new student, Ben. Portrayed in an edibly appealing performance by Johnny Flynn, he's a gormless-seeming eco-obsessive (his idea of the perfect death would be to blow himself up on Top Gear) whose klutzy attempts at acting cool conceal a lonely heart and brilliant mind.
As it keeps the great one-liners whizzing and the scientific arguments airborne, Jeremy Herrin's extremely engaging production lets it gradually steal over you that this is principally a play about love. Nothing is resolved intellectually, nor is it clear whether Ben admires Diane, to an extent, because she is a stubborn individualist or because he thinks she is right. The whole question is elided here in the resolution of the mother-and-daughter conflict, with the mother recognising that she has been too extreme and the daughter that the eco-addiction and the anorexia were part and parcel of the same problem. Where does that leave the science, though? Rather obscured at the end in the golden haze of humanist uplift.
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