Mike Bartlett marks a change in his usual minimalist style with ‘Earthquakes in London’; a sprawling and energetic play that explores anxieties about climate change, and the relationships we nurture and sustain despite impending disaster. This innovative play that defies classification sold out the Cottesloe Theatre last year, perhaps due to its ferocity and bravery whilst addressing salient and frightening contemporary issues, peppering these debates with musical interludes from the likes of Arcade Fire and Goldfrapp.
In spite of such dark subject matter however, Bartlett and director Rupert Goold manage to create an often joyous, always colourful piece that spans decades from the sixties to the year 2525. The story centers around three sisters; Sarah is the Lib Dem minister for the environment whose decision over airport expansion is due to come in a few weeks. Freya is a frightened mother-to-be who searches for answers to her anxiety in the very city into which she is scared to introduce a child. Jasmine, the youngest, embodies youthful hedonism and the apathy that we all experience when it comes to actually doing something about global warming.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Robert, estranged father to the three sisters, whom we meet as a young graduate in the late sixties. He sells out to a multinational airline company when he denies that the expansion of air travel will have any overwhelming impact on the environment. Now in his 60s, he lives a solitary and regretful life, preaching about an impending catastrophe.
His harsh and compelling speech in the fourth act claims that “we were part of a system; a relationship, and we abused it”, and “we know there’s nothing to be done so we drink and dance as fast as we can”. The focus on this feeling of dull denial must have in particular struck a chord with the students in the audience. Did we identify with Jasmine’s feeling of indifference to issues any more pressing than that evening’s entertainment?
There was no doubt a sense of shame involved in watching the piece; it invited an uncomfortable analysis of your own contributions to climate change. As Tom, the fiercely political undergraduate exclaims during an irate speech; “Embarrassed? You should be”. The questions Bartlett raises; those of eventual apocalypse and humanity’s signing of its own demise are not new ones, but the desperate, troubled relationships and the way in which they mirror the devastation does feel original.
We are at once entranced by the rotating sets, short succession of scenes and musical numbers, and genuinely distressed by the characters’ inability to communicate with each other effectively. Indeed, the scenes in ‘Earthquakes in London’ that focus on the desperate negotiation of the character’s relationships were by far the most successful.
Less so was a forced scene from the future (in which we meet Freya waking from her cryogenic freezing), and a bizarre animation portraying a folk tale that meant an ending that should have felt profound was lost to comedy. There were moments perhaps too strange to feel comfortable, but the overwhelming energy, flair and imagination that ‘Earthquakes’ exhibits ensures it is a show not to be missed.