james debate
james debate

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Written by Richard Bean
Starring Juliet Stevenson, James Fleet, Johnny Flynn
Theatre Royal Court Theatre

the heretic royal court review

Few British playwrights are considered more provocative right now than Richard Bean, who has seemingly built a career on mingling adroit social comedy with slightly more tone deaf political sensationalism. I recently had the pleasure of attending one of the preview performances of his latest play the Heretic, his return to the Royal Court Theatre which has been billed as another "daring" thought provoker designed to make the audience question the accepted norm of contemporary science.

Juliet Stevenson plays an Earth Sciences professor at Yorkshire university where she is ostracized and ridiculed for her controversial stance on climate change, at odds with the established wisdom of anthropogenic mechanism. She paints herself as an intellectual agnostic, drawing contrasts between science and faith while dismissing her detractors as zealots who have more in common with those who once blindly believed in the "flat Earth" model while scoffing at the unconventional hypotheses of Galileo.

Her ideals eventually land her on the receiving end of death threats from environmental activists and a suspension from the university at the hands of her boss and former beau, played by James Fleet. Elsewhere Stevenson's estranged daughter falls in love with a new student, played by singer/songwriter Johnny Flynn, two characters whose thematic purpose in this play seems to be little more than to serve as caricatures of today's impressionable and impulsive youth.

While I don't think a theatre review is the place to discuss climate science, ultimately I don't think it will matter as this play is unlikely to stir up much debate or controversy despite its best efforts. It's pretty clear that in researching this project Bean has sadly emerged much more muddled than he began.

I may disagree with his politics, or find myself bemused by his tenuous historical parallels, but there is no doubt that his underlying message is an important one: the need for distinguishing between science and faith, and the pitfalls of blindly accepting convention as opposed to always asking questions. The problem is that his message here is simply not particularly well thought out.

His observations are often hollow and superficial, with the implication being that his character's climate denial hypothesis is somehow made more credible by the fact that it is considered outside the mainstream. Presumably that would put the likes of David Icke or the "hollow earth theory" on a similarly valid footing. Unfortunately this seems to be as far as Bean takes his premise; needless to say it is hardly compelling food for thought for the audience to mull over.

This is my only criticism of this production, but it is a pretty major one; it tries so hard to create controversy without putting much thought into its conceit. This play is desperate to be a caustic political commentary, and it sadly fails in this regard.

In other ways the play is more successful. The dialogue is sharp and often hilarious and the comedic delivery is pretty much pitch perfect from its talented cast. If nothing else, you will have a good laugh and an enjoyable two and a half hours.

Bean attempts to explore the relationships of his characters; the mother daughter relationship, Stevenson's fizzled romance with Fleet's character, and young love. Often comparisons are drawn between these relationships and the play's larger themes, for example a series of photos showing Stevenson's daughter growing up alongside a tree that represents the body of her prized research, the two of which almost share the same fate as the scenes progress.

By this fashion Bean links the story's various conflicts, academic, political and personal but never seems confident enough in any of them to explore much further than is superficially necessary. As far as satire goes, the end result is more Richard Curtis than Mark Twain.

Even though so far I have been mostly negative about this production I have to say I did enjoy it. It's never as sharp or as poignant as it so desperately wants to be, but it is a witty and enjoyable night out, well acted and produced. Of course, this being a preview showing there were clearly a few wrinkles still to iron out, but I suspect the final product will be a lot smoother by next week when doors open to the general public.

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