Theatre Review: New Atlantis – Both Waving and Drowning by Lydia Nicholas

Sieman’s Crystal, the fractured, urgent glass polygon where Last Theatre’s New Atlantis sets its immersive stage, is an ill-fated location to explore the public’s place in humanity’s struggle to face the oncoming climate catastrophe.

Above us oil-monarchy sponsored empty glass baubles run from the gargantuan ExCel centre to the O2 along the Emerites Airline. Massive 19th century cranes are dwarfed by even more massive business hotels, monuments to one withered stream of capital become sculpture to entertain the acolytes of the next. To the south the evening sky is alive with the light of a thousand Canary Wharf executive’s windows. Turning East along Victoria Dock, we stare right up the business end of London City Airport’s runway where for £10,000 those executives can charter a private take-off. It is hard to imagine that none of the 1,700 private jets reported to be arriving for cocktails and climate at Davos the same week won’t have taken that route over the audience’s heads by the time the show’s short run ends.

New Atlantis casts its audience as agents of the successor organisation to the UN called on to choose a new leader and thus the best strategy to guide humanity through the climate crisis. Scientists have arrived to inform us, and characters are available to interrogate so as to make the best decision for the future. The stakes are high, the credentials of the show’s artistic and scientific crew are exceptional and there’s a real chance to steer miniature versions of the Martian Rover while engineers gush over the exquisite complexity of mining asteroids for water. Unfortunately this ambitious attempt to bring a plot and purpose to public science events ends up buckling under the complexity of the issues and highlighting the uncertain place of an engaged educated public’s choices in a system so much larger than them.

The highlights of the evenings are the scientists, enthused by the freedom of the 2050 setting, bubbling over with every grant proposal they’d ever dismissed as overambitious. ‘It uses sunlight to make a universal vaccine and excretes fuel!’, ‘really, this project only requires centralised control of the entire world’s resources for a short time’. The ticket price buys a less crowded interaction than a Science Museum Late event could offer, but the setting makes it impossible to pin down which developments are real or realistic, so that the feeling of one’s perception of reality shifting in the face of a truly incredible fact or thing which fills the best science communications work is never fully realised.

In an attempt to place the scientists and their work in a pitched battle, New Atlantis is divided into three departments; Industry, which believes in the power of market forces and innovation to save the world, Reform, which prefers crowd-sourced policy and education, and Defence, which favours a top-down approach. The science inevitably slops over these bulwarks, and the scientists make little attempt to contain their enthusiasm and visions to one sector. The rigidity with which the actors playing characters defend their departments’ positions in the face of audience interrogation regarding these contradictions is reminiscent of the most frustrating political debates, and begins to tip the show into a thought-provoking, brutal satire of engagement.

The script works hard to appear to give our choice meaning, emotional resonance and firm grounding in a richly realised world. Given the time limit, this leads to a lot of characters explaining, voice cracking with emotion, how much they love the cause and hate each other.

The performances are strong enough to carry this, but not to mask the means by which the structure elides any potential influence of the audience’s actions on the plot. The appearance of input is everywhere, we are constantly personally implicated in the climate catastrophe. There are polls and issue-driven stock tickers throughout the building, but none of them are mentioned outside their respective rooms. At the climax of the final debate the host asks “any questions for the candidates?” and several people call out considered points. At the very moment our moderator begins to voice the audience’s ideas to the potential leaders, a plot-driving interruption appears, triggering the debate’s descent into choreography. In the final moments, with new scandals revealed implicating all departments, and a new candidate on offer who we have no details about, it is pitifully obvious that any effort to follow the former leaders plea to ‘urgently engage and inform yourselves’ has been in vain. We are drowning in information, yet parched for real choices, and power flows on, heedless, through its own deeper channels.

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