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First climate change play started with James Lovelock

Many had considered climate change an impossible subject to dramatise. But two new plays that opened at the Bush in May proved them wrong. Robert Butler talks to playwright Steve Waters about The Contingency Plan, his double-bill of plays about climate change.

Robert When did you first think you might write a play about climate change?


Steve Waters
About 2006. I was invited to do a project with Hampstead Theatre, where I was matched with a younger writer, George Gotts. We were doing something called 'Daring Pairings'. The idea was that you would write a play together very quickly. We both decided we wanted to write something about James Lovelock. Revenge of Gaia had just come out, so we both read it, and then we wrote very, very swiftly in response a series of scenes. It was titled ‘A Plague of People’ and it got a reading and went down very well.

I got very interested in what had surfaced in that. There was this older couple, Robin and Jenny, who feature in The Contingency Plan. They’re the parents, and there was Will, who’s a young scientist, a glaciologist, and he was going into government. There’s a scene where Will goes to meet with a civil servant and she is blindly unaware of any of the things he wants to tell her, all the bad news if you like, and it was quite a funny scene.

I was keen to write something about climate change. It seemed in 2006, there was a step-change in the public discussion about it. Lovelock seemed to crystallise that because the book was so scary and so full of drama. There’s something wonderfully lurid about that book and something really quite repellent as well.

Robert Were you thinking of Lovelock as a Cassandra figure?

James Lovelock
I think so. Lovelock interests me because firstly he was such a visible figure. Secondly he was such a contradictory figure. He was railing against urban greens and was very critical of certain mainstream environmental politics. On the other hand, like no one before, he was saying it may already be too late. We may have already passed various tipping points. That’s the sort of person that interests me. Somebody who in a way embodies some of the fault lines within green politics. There’s something really misanthropic about some of that book.

Robert So he would be a much more interesting dramatic figure than say Jonathan Porritt because there are so many contradictions?


Robin Soanes (Robin) and Susan Brown
(Jenny) in On the Beach.
Absolutely. In the original, fragmentary play I wrote for the Hampstead, there was one scene with Robin and Jenny, and they were walking in the Peak District and suddenly he turned to Jenny, who he’s been married to for many, many years, and said he couldn’t be in a relationship with her anymore. This profound negativity and pessimism that he was expressing was something I wanted to pursue further really.

In that scene there was a lot of allusions back to Rachel Carson’s work and his own early environmentalism and a sense of a lost opportunity, and a genuine, profound pessimism for the future. There was something that had totally eroded his belief in relationships and human beings. That psychology really interested me.

Robert What did you learn from presenting that earlier play at the reading?

Steve One of the things is how you think you’re in a great community of talk and debate about climate change, and actually you’re not. You’re in a little bubble of concern about climate change. I was quite staggered by how many people, in the liberal arts scene in London of all places, didn’t even seem to have the first inkling of what I was talking about. It was just a dim presence on their radar. They didn’t even know whether they believed it at that point. Even though it seemed to me a burning issue, the thing I just had to get out of my head, for other people they hadn’t even begun to get it into their head, and that was pretty scary.

Robert A very important event, which you must have come across quite early in your research for The Contingency Plan, was the 1953 flood.

robin +will+sarika
Robin Soanes (Robin), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Will)
and Stephanie Street (Sarika) in On the Beach
I wanted to make sure that everything in the play had a precedent in some respect. This 1953 flood was a very particular event, in the sense of the devastating impact it had on eastern England, and on the Netherlands. It was largely to do with early warning systems not working, with a series of very contingent factors to do with tidal surges, to do with the fact that it was a spring tide, to do with weather conditions, the direction of the wind, and so on.

So a number of things combined to make an ordinary event an extraordinarily devastating event. I think 300 people died in England, thousands of people died in the Netherlands. It almost happened again very recently in 2007. There was an event in the autumn where Lowestoft and places on the eastern coast were subject to very similar conditions. Gordon Brown called a Cobra meeting. They’re all in the bunker there just like they were when the banks failed.

Robert So your basic premise was that - with the ice from the Antarctic melting - if 1953 happened again, it would be massive?

'1953 was about a conjunction of circumstances. If it happened again, and I believe it is a question of when not if, it will be worse, far worse.'

Will, glaciologist, in Resilience.

That’s right. Obviously the play indicates it’s probably Greenland that’s culpable. But the character at the centre of the play, Will Paxton, the glaciologist, is bringing even worse news. He’s saying, look, this is an intimation of an even more scary scenario. He works on the biggest ice sheets in the world and even they are not utterly impregnable. That’s his argument.

I suppose the thing that made the play plausible to me was the way in which every time you hear the IPCC report, everything’s at least 10 or 20 years ahead of what they imagined five years previously. That sense of the non-linear aspect of climate change was the conceit that drives the play.

Robert In the plays, the father and son are both glaciologists. The father worked on Pine Island in Antarctica back in the 1970’s, and he discovers information that makes him think that actually the ice sheet is not that indestructible and he goes to the Thatcher government. The government doesn’t listen to him and this precipitates his resignation. The work of the father is carried on by the son. He goes into government, in Whitehall in the present day. Is all this fictional?

robin & will
Robin Soanes (Robin) and Geoffrey Streatfeild
(Will) in On the Beach.
The kernel of the story came when I was talking to John King at the British Antarctic Survey. He was in Eastern Antarctic on the peninsula about 10 – 12 years ago, and there was much more warming than he had been anticipating. It was apparent that an ice sheet was about to break off from the landmass. Greenpeace contacted him at the time and asked should we mobilise around this. He said he couldn’t make a political gesture at that time. His ethics as a scientist obviously mitigated against his making that leap into politics. And then 10 years later, the science had lined up. The warming could be explained by anthropogenic climate change.

What intrigued me was the idea that somebody might be working in the Antarctic in the 1970’s, but they weren’t interested in climate change. What would happen if somebody at that time had started to see evidence of something but they didn’t have a paradigm to explain it as climate change? It was developing in certain areas of science but there wasn’t a common consensus.

"I made the mistake of thinking the truth was its own ambassador. And if you do this, now, you will make the exact same mistake again. These people, they use you ..."

Robin, ex-glacioloist, in On the Beach.

I imagined this man finding this out, and getting a pretty dim audience from everybody around him including his colleague, the character Colin Jenks, and being destroyed by that premature knowledge. Then turning in on himself and being very destructive as a consequence.

There is something genuinely tragic about the whole question of climate change. Whilst we know there are political ramifications, we know people are responsible, we know there’s culpability and all of that, at the same time it is a genuine tragedy to me in the sense that it’s something that we’ve all inherited, it’s something that we didn’t necessarily set into motion knowingly and it’s disproportionate in its impact. I wanted that feeling in the play. This sense of there being this long secret waiting to be discovered under the ice or in the atmosphere and it then was discovered too late and responded to too late.

on the beach
Stephanie Street (Sarika) and Geoffrey
Streatfeild (Will) in On the Beach
It’s a sort of Ibsen play in the way the past impacts on the present and it’s too late to address that particular aspect of the past.

I was particularly interested with Will. He’d grown up sensing this darkness in his father and how that manifests in misanthropy. Again, thinking of Lovelock who was marvellously robust after being disbelieved for so long, who carried on speaking to people, meeting with Margaret Thatcher, keeping his thesis afloat about Gaia even in the most arduous of circumstances. But Robin doesn’t. He’s not robust. He turns in on himself and as a consequence he sets this poison chalice for Will about disengaging altogether from public life.

I met with a lot of scientists who generally speaking, were uncomfortable about politics, sceptical about the way government works, anarchist in their instincts in some respects. All they respect is other scientists and the very particular work that they do. The thing that interested me in the play was how do such people speak to government and how does government speak to them. It’s very easy for government to decide to dispense with people who are telling the truth.

Robert In the play, you didn’t have anyone who was a green advocate. Why did you keep out that strain of the debate?

jenny & robin
Susan Brown (Jenny) and Robin Soanes
(Robin) in On the Beach.
One could already imagine what that character would be like. They are very hard to engage with theatrically and very uninteresting in some respects. They’re too smart, they’re too clever, too knowing and they would articulate the subconscious of the play. I just don’t like that sort of play and I’m interested in finding voices which are a very long way away from my own, in terms of the language they deploy and their morality.

The character Jenny is an interesting example. She’s involved in mitigation activities and carbon reduction and community things. It’s laughed at merrily in the play, but I’m totally behind that. That’s what I do. That’s the activism I can understand and engage with. But I can also see how a scientist such as Will who knows the scale of the problem might it hard to find any value in it.

Robert Did you think you had to explain climate change to an audience?

Steve I tried to side-step explaining climate change. The play says ‘it’s a given.’ What it tries to explain instead is local manifestations of climate change so there are a couple of ‘lantern lectures’ moments. In the first play, there is this hilarious but also grotesque moment when Robin, with a fish tank and a model and a scale map, shows his family what will happen to his land in Norfolk with climate change.

They’re all thinking this is a manifestation of his breakdown. It’s a horrible scene in some respects but it’s quite funny, too. The audience were looking at the model in the interval. You feel so fraudulent, because of course, it’s not unrealistic, but it is an act of fiction.

Stephanie Street (Sarika) and Geoffrey Streatfeild
(Will) in Resilience
In the second play, Robin’s nemesis is the scientist Colin Jenks who’s the government advisor. He does a demonstration about resilience. Everyone holds a piece of string, like a cat’s cradle. Then, he says, let’s take away the trees, let’s take away the worms, and he starts cutting it. I took that from the Transition Town Handbook, It’s a common workshop but it seemed like a delicious thing to do with government ministers standing there pretending to be oak trees or jays or worms. It was in a sense didactic but it is a comic moment, and I think as long as those things are grounded in a character or a theatrical moment then you can smuggle them through.

Robert When I saw the plays, I was sitting next to the Daily Telegraph’s critic and at the end of the first play he turned to me and said ‘Tell me this isn’t true’. Did you get some feedback from any scientific or government advisers?

Steve I think some people from the Department of Energy and Climate Change came. They didn’t send me an angry email, but in the play, they came off lightly.

Robert It’s set in a Tory government and the Conservative minister is always saying ‘Ahh what am I going to tell David?’

"If you pour water in the bath it doesn't stay under the tap, Minister; the equilibrium of the ocean, of all oceans everywhere is disrupted.'

Will, glaciologist, in Resilience.

I have a strong, queasy feeling about the Conservatives in power. That’s a bit tribal of me.

I just wanted a new government who in the very first week of their tenure have this disastrous flood in Bristol. And before they’ve read the papers and been briefed properly - what are they going to do about it? Because it isn’t going to happen at a convenient time let’s face it.

Robert The government advisors and ministers are around a table in Whitehall, wondering whether to evacuate towns along the east coast. The country is watching Strictly Come Dancing. If they make the wrong call, ‘David’ is going to be angry.

Steve The best analogy was the build-up to Y2K, to the Millenium Eve, when everyone looked foolish afterwards. It’s a very difficult position for the government, but it struck me that a Tory government might have said, ‘Well, the state would make it worse. People should make their own arrangements to evacuate’. The ‘invisible hand’ would evacuate Lowestoft.

Robert I’d like to talk about how your other plays have prepared you for this one. First of all, you went on the playwrighting course at Birmingham University in 1992.

Audio interviews with Steve Waters:
on teaching theatre writing
on the new writing scene in Cambridge (transcript).
on Fast Labour

I read English at Oxford in the 1980’s and I became a teacher in schools. I came from the Midlands, a theatre-poor bit of Britain. I don’t know why I was interested in the theatre, but I was for some strange reason. So I started writing plays for kids and putting them on at schools. Then this course appeared at Birmingham. David Edgar founded it twenty years ago this year.

It was a very exciting thing for me to do. What was so great about the course is that it’s for writers by writers. I met Trevor Griffiths and Arnold Wesker. And suddenly theatre felt much more easy to understand. Because theatre is a cliquey kind of world. It’s quite hard to penetrate, especially if you have no connection to it.

There’s a certain positive superficiality about theatre writing, if I can put it nicely, in the sense that it’s very active. It’s very quick. You might labour over a play for a long time in the thinking but you write it quickly. It should be staged quickly. It’s about a certain energy, and I think that’s how I write.

David Edgar is part of a generation of playwrights from the late sixties - Howard Brenton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill - who defined an idea of theatre in this country that was socialist and public and epic and post-Brecht. That’s the theatre that interests me. It doesn’t exist anymore in the same way. How to respond to that theatre now in very changed conditions intrigues me. I think that’s a real challenge.

Robert Two things that strike me when reading your plays are that they are about people at work. And that you bring different parts of the world together on often small stages, as in World Music, set in the EU in Brussels and in a fictional Central African country.

"I am going into the real world of real work, a world where I can earn a living doing something I don't despise, where value is created not traduced. What I wanted to say can be simply expressed - thus - (He tosses his papers into the air and walks out.)"

Steve Fulton, academic, in After The Gods

Yes, I am interested in people at work. I’m interested in people under pressure, people in situations where they make moral choices. I wouldn’t really describe myself as a political writer in the straightforward sense, but the EU is the politics that interests me because there’s something curiously vacant about it. There’s something haunting about the EU and sort of Swiftian. It floats over Europe. There’s something about the folly of the EU, although I believe it should exist, that makes me want to write about it. Whereas, it was hard to write about Westminster because it’s very colonised with so many TV series and jokes and political lobbyists. The way we write about politics in the newspapers bores me to tears - these quiet briefings by insiders. I didn’t want any of that in the play but I knew I had to draw upon that tradition, the Whitehall farce - trousers down and peccadilloes.

Robert Work also defines character and people’s points of view. In After the Gods, which is about academics, structuralists, a real crisis happens, but they all seem to react to it in terms of what papers they written, what their position is on reality.


Geoffrey Streatfeild (Will) and Stephanie Street
(Sarika) in On the Beach
There’s this fascinating thing in theatre about representative character - somebody who stands for something, somebody who manifests a tendency or an idea. One’s always trying to work against that but I do think people are like that. There’s a degree to which people define themselves ideologically and then they behave accordingly. I am interested in the way people manifest their convictions, but also the way they get lost in them.

Someone said to me that I’m really interested in people who are wrong. I thought that sums it up very neatly. I am very interested in people who are wrong. I feel I’m wrong a lot of the time. I’m ignorant. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. There’s a lot of time when I feel like I have no right to say this. I think those characters who are in that position really interest me. People who haven’t quite got the authority or speak beyond their brief or who transgress some kind of social code. And they’re wrong but they’re right.

Robert In Fast Labour, which is about economic migrants in Britain, a Ukrainian, arrives in Britain with nothing and he ends up making money and setting up a business bringing other people from Europe to work here. Do you like to bring the news to the theatre?

"Your British person, they want the world on a plate and they want Bob Geldof too - they want their last-minute iceberg lettuce in March, but you tell them how it got there so crunchy and cheap, they get all squeamish."

Mike Grimmer, gangmaster, in Fast Labour

That’s the political energy. There’s something in theatre that’s inherently topical.

One of the things that’s happened to political theatre recently is that it’s got reduced to the idea of verbatim theatre or works that leap right over the active imagination into recorded fact. I respect that, But as a writer, that doesn’t interest me. The stories that interest me are the ones where you realise that the recorded fact doesn’t even begin to tell that story. That there’s a whole layer of story underneath that’s just not accessible. I suppose a lot of the plays are about those secret worlds, hidden worlds. I want to take a step back from the mainstream way questions are being aired and ask what are the larger questions behind it. I’m interested in the tendencies.

Think of those traditions of documentary makers like Fred Wiseman in the United States. He would spend a lot of time filming hidden worlds and he felt that was his duty in a democratic society. I think that’s a real spur for me because I find it fascinating to ask ‘how does this thing work?’ How do people make decisions about this? The plays are not telling the news in the sense of scandal or exposé but there’s a degree to which they try to take a step back from the kind of ideology of news to locate more troubling stories, the kind that are hard to tell in a 300 word article.

Robert Is there an education going on, in the best sense of education?

Steve To me, research is a very exciting thing. It’s a physical thing. It’s like going on a journey and I want that feeling in the play, I want the audience to go on that journey as well.

So yes, in a sense it’s educational, but that sounds too pat doesn’t it? There’s a degree to which I don’t know what I think, but I know the play helps me think aloud and I hope it helps other people think aloud, too. That’s the way it seems to me to work rather than imparting a content or a body of knowledge.

What kind of knowledge serves politics? How can any mind contain all the things that one needs to know to make a decision about most of the things that politics pertains to? Resilience is a satire. The huge challenge to politics of climate change is out of the knowledge of politicians.

Robert One wants a lot more plays now, not necessarily climate change plays but plays that are dealing with capitalism or consumerism or the idea of the individual against the group and our responsibilities. These touch on themes that are very pertinent to climate change but don’t necessarily have to go under the banner of climate change.

"I have noted that the majority of people haven't got a grain of the political in them, that they experience life as a fact, as hard and as unchangeable as concrete; the majority of people don't seriously imagine life could be other than it is. The majority of people for the majority of time have essentially thought this way, and that's good because if they didn't, their lives would be intolerable. I don't think we should alter this. In fact I don't think we have the right to alter this.

But we know, and this is our curse, we know everything could be otherwise. We can think futures into existence; and we have to do this, because elsewhere, sitting in a room somewhere - and yes, I think we really must be paranoid about this - there are six or seven other people and they are not as nice as us and they are planning to make life otherwise their way."

Patrick Fox, Labour MP, in The Unthinkable

Absolutely. Most playwrights are urbane folk. They live in cities and they sit in theatres and they’re in a particular place where nature doesn’t feature. There’s a strand that is very absent from English theatre but not from Russian theatre or Norwegian theatre. In Australian theatre, it is interestingly present.

It intrigues me, why is there not a play by David Hare about climate change? Why isn’t there a play by David Edgar? There’s a real generational thing there. They don’t know how to talk about it, so the traditional left is in trouble. Caryl Churchill is the only one who’s made steps towards it, because of her background in feminism and her connection to environmentalism.

The only hope I’d derive from climate change is it has generated a completely different sort of politics, which is now proving to be really robust. It doesn’t need government in the same way and it does reach over to government, like 10:10. I’m not saying it’s the solution but my goodness it does get people talking very quickly and that gives me an enormous amount of hope.

Photo credits:
1) James Lovelock, by Eamonn McCabe
2) On the Beach, by Robert Workman
3) On the Beach, photographer not known
4) On the Beach, by Simon Annand
5) On the Beach, photographer not known
6) On the Beach, Simon Annand
7) Resilience, Robert Workman
8) On the Beach, Tristram Kenton

published in 2009

The interview with Steve Waters was organised by Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith of CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) in Cambridge. The interview, 'Time to Act: The Theatre of Climate Change', was part of their programme of events 'The Cultures of Climate Change'.


A version of The Contingency Plan was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 13 December, and is available until 20 December online.


Two readings of The Contingency Plan, with the original cast, will be produced at the Bush at the Library on 15 and on 18 December.


Steve Waters latest blog for the Guardian: Can theatre do anything about climate change?


Steve Waters writes on naturalism in Keeping it real in the NewStatesman


Articles by Steve Waters in the Guardian:

Where are today's public intellectuals?

Narrative Nailed Dead

Dangerous Minds

The Case for Complexity

The truth behind the facts



Reviews for The Contingency Plan:

Michael Billington in the Guardian

Michael Coveney in the Independent

Gareth Jenkins for

new economics foundation

Resilience Science blog

britishtheatreguide: On the Beach

britishtheatreguide: Resilience


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