Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Opened 4 August, 2010

In some ways this show is quite uncharacteristic of playwright Mike Bartlett’s work hitherto. What it has in common with his Royal Court productions (Contractions, My Child and the sniggersomely titled Cock) is a radical reconfiguration of the performance space. The Cottesloe now has a single row of bench seating at stalls level around three walls, with bar stools flanking a huge reverse-S-shaped catwalk on which, along with letterbox-shaped stages halfway up each end wall, the action is played out.
That action is the beginning of the end, climate change-wise, as London awaits a precisely forecast earthquake (since when was seismology that accurate?) and three very un-Chekhovian sisters negotiate their own family drama. The eldest is a job-obsessed Lib Dem minister for the environment in the current coalition government, the middle sister driven to distraction by the baby she is carrying, the youngest a stroppy student. Their father, who severed ties with them many years ago, is a curmudgeonly version of environmental scientist James Lovelock, arguing that the earth is already setting about correcting its own planetary eco-mechanism by all but extinguishing the human race.
This is not unlike the recent collaboratively written play A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky, portraying huge events – both on a global and on an individual’s-entire-life scale – through sequences of relatively mundane events. What that other play possessed which is missing from Bartlett’s – and, I belatedly realise, from most of his work so far – is an animating sense of the human spirit. This is particularly noticeable during the final half-hour (at three hours plus, Earthquakes is almost as long as his entire Royal Court œuvre put together), which dissolves into a vaporous collection of future scenes, near-death experiences and Czech-looking animations. Director Rupert Goold has a stellar cast at his disposal – Lia Williams, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Bill Paterson, Tom Goodman-Hill – but he has basically +Enron+ned the play: added bells, whistles, music, lights, cavorting and generally been true to the script’s requirement of “excess”. On this occasion, though, it neither ironises the content nor throws it into relief; rather it repeatedly reminds us of what is missing. It has all the trappings of life, but no breath. It feels as if the planet is simply going through the same kind of midlife crisis as some of the characters.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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