People are hot.
More people are hotter.
Ergo, adding people to the planet warms it up. And the warmer it is, the more disrupted and unpredictable life becomes.
Robert, the climatologist in Mike Bartlett’s EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON now playing at Steep Theatre, explains all this to a young woman named Grace.
The year is 1968 and this is Robert and Grace’s first date.
Remarkably, Grace is not put off and marries him and produces three daughters. Then she dies. A loving husband, Robert never develops fatherly affection for his earth-heating offspring – and that forms the basis of Bartlett’s doomsday drama. As EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Robert’s emotional deprivation has followed his daughters into adulthood: Sarah, a steely environmental minister for the British government; Freya, a teaching assistant expecting her first child; and Jasmine, a hedonistic college dropout.
Steep Theatre tackles an ambitious script
“Don’t ever bring me grandchildren!” thunders Robert to pregnant Freya. This parental curse causes such anguish that Freya’s devoted husband Steve leaves her in London to confront the old man in his Scottish hideaway. Their story is just one piece of EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON’S complex commentary on the havoc that human existence has wreaked on earth. Under Jonathan Berry’s direction, Steep’s cast of 15 earnestly tackles the ambitious but rambling script that clocks in at three hours.
Each sister is monumentally frustrated for related but different reasons – and so are their menfolk: Besides Steve seeking answers from his father-in-law, there is Sarah’s unemployed and alienated husband Colin. And then there is Jasmine’s new Eritrean boyfriend Tom who demands attention for his climate-threatened country from the white Britons in power. Meanwhile, Freya wanders through London’s Parliament Hill and into a hospital ER, distraught and confused about the daughter in her womb.
EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON imagines the apocalypse
There is much to admire in Bartlett’s imagining of our self-made apocalypse. As a new father, Robert is lured by airline executives into accepting a huge fee for “meaningful” emissions research – code for disguising air travel’s actual environmental impact. Decades later as a public official, Sarah works to halt Heathrow’s runaway expansion. When an airline executive tries to stop her by threatening to expose her ecologically-revered father’s hypocrisy, Sarah is unmoved. “I don’t like him anyway,” she says coolly.
Sensual younger sister Jasmine approaches the family cause in her own way: she protests rainforest destruction with a burlesque routine in which she deforests her body of clothing. Rounding out the trio of responses, middle sister Freya’s misery is a magnified view of every mother’s concern for her child’s future.
These three sisters are richly drawn, as are many of the characters surrounding them. But as EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON elliptically progresses, it can be hard to stay invested. The actors jump with conviction from surreal symbolic disco dances and futuristic visions to literal present-day meetings at Westminster and tense marital squabbles. In the end, however, the script’s bounty of messages about our disruption to the cosmos begins to sag under its own weight.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.