Just over a decade ago, the renowned director Katie Mitchell crafted a production called ‘Ten Billion’ at the Royal Court Theatre. Centred on the topic of overpopulation, it took the form of a lecture by scientist Stephen Emmott. Although not extravagant, the show was focused and impactful. ‘A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction’ can be seen as the prodigious, evolved descendant of ‘Ten Billion.’ At its core, it remains a lecture on extinction but surpasses the modest scale of its theatrical predecessor. While maintaining a lecture-style structure, this rendition features a script by Miranda Rose Hall and is performed as a compelling dramatic monologue by the immensely talented Danielle Henry.
This production is worth noting not only for its performances but also for its innovative approach. Produced by the trailblazing company Headlong, the show’s run at Stoke’s New Vic is part of a unique tour that doesn’t physically travel. Instead, the locally sourced set designed by Moi Tran and the cast are replicated at each venue. This concept becomes an integral part of the theatrical experience, perhaps even its most potent aspect.
The staging itself adds to the production’s resonance. Danielle Henry initiates the show with a brief preamble before boldly announcing “we’re going off grid,” motioning for the house lights at Stoke’s New Vic to be extinguished. Subsequently, a group of cyclists emerges, their pedalling on stationary bikes connected to a lower-energy secondary grid, creating an unsettling whirring soundscape. The ingenuity of having a group of 4 cyclists take to the stage to power the production is quite impressive and certainly innovative. There is something excitingly eerie as the audience is plunged into darkness, awaiting the return of light.
Hall’s play presents a blend of elements. It commences with a slightly perplexing concept in which Henry assumes the role of the dramaturg for a touring company that had been presenting an eco-themed production about climate catastrophe. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, her two colleagues are absent, leaving her to conclude the remaining show on her own.
These introductory aspects feel somewhat unnecessary and are swiftly abandoned, giving way to a more lecture-like format. Henry embarks on a journey through the Earth’s five prior mass extinctions, reminding the audience that we currently find ourselves in the midst of the sixth one. The tone feels confused at points as audience members are invited on stage to embody the Earth’s first trees through dance or share childhood memories associated with trees.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the production lies in Henry’s performance. Although not characterised by intricate character work, her depiction of herself grappling with the spectre of animal extinctions is remarkable. It is her charisma that carries us through the earlier exposition, while her portrayal of horror and dismay adds weight to the impactful final section. Notably, a powerfully unsettling sequence unfolds as she solemnly recites the names of recently extinct or critically endangered plants and animals, accompanied by photographs and footage of these creatures and underscored by Paul Clark’s haunting music. Later, her vivid description of the devastating decline of brown bats leaves an indelible impression. It is these scenes which stayed with me throughout the rest of the performance and on the journey home.
However, Hall’s text feels scattered, encompassing fleeting but underexplored attempts at intersectionality by linking climate change to white supremacy, and an endeavour to convey the magnitude and emotional burden of extinction, culminating in a somewhat bewildering finale. Hall’s text excels in conveying the emotional weight of extinction but lacks the focused clarity required to make a compelling argument beyond the inherent sadness of extinction for humans. Undoubtedly, the play made me think, consider and evaluate climate change. However, the play doesn’t seem to claim to have a solution. Perhaps that is the most worrying takeaway from this piece.
Ultimately, ‘A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction’ succeeds more as a thought-provoking piece of theatre than as a cohesive piece of drama. The logistical and creative aspects of its tour and staging hold a clear purpose. However, I fear that the actual show often lacks this same driving force. Nevertheless, this innovative production is incredibly unique and I would urge all theatre fans to see this show. You’re unlikely to find anything like this anywhere else. It reminds me that the New Vic remains a hub for theatre excellence, innovation and uniqueness.
A Play for The Living in a Time of Extinction is playing at the New Vic until Saturday 24th June 2023. Tickets and show information available here: https://www.newvictheatre.org.uk/productions/a-play-for-the-living-in-a-time-of-extinction/