Review – Greenland, National Theatre

Imagine how much you’d enjoy it if someone locked you in a dark room and lecturerd you for two hours and five minutes on climate change without an interval. Thanks to the National Theatre, you no longer have to imagine.

Written by “four of the country’s most exciting writers” – the programme is verbose on the subject of how much landfill was saved by printing on recycled paper (1,183.8kg) but surprisingly mute on which one exactly wrote what or how the process worked – Greenland follows a number of stories which are supposedly interweaving. It’s all too unremittingly tedious to recount in any sort of detail, but there’s something about a grumpy teenager, something about the Copenhagen talks and something about two brothers in Greenland watching birds. There’s also a lot of stuff about people who dance around under flashing lights as a form of protest.

A central theme of the play is that drafting of international treaties by committee is an imperfect process; but it also becomes quickly clear that cohesive plays also don’t benefit from having four writers involved. This play is, at its best, a jumbled mess of preaching indignation.

At worst it fails to be a play at all. There might be a few nice audition pieces in here, but I encountered not a single believable character or action, not a single plot strand I cared about the conclusion of and not a single line of consequential dialogue that sounded like it might plausibly ever come out of the mouth of a human being.

This play is in many ways a lot like last year’s Earthquakes in London, and not just because they’re both addressing the issue of climate change: the large cast, intersecting plot lines and attempts at epic status are all similar. But it’s difficult to imagine two pays less similar in how effective they are: Earthquakes was a moving human drama first and far fetched future threat parable second; Greenland lacks humanity because it has no characters that feel real and lacks drama because we don’t care about any of them.

Greenland is about the man-made catastrophe of climate change, but as a play it is nothing short of a catastrophe itself (notwithstanding this being a first preview), and a man-made one at that. Someone at the National Theatre should have looked away from it being a cute idea and ‘on message’, read the script and concluded it just wouldn’t work.

But that wasn’t what they did. And that they didn’t leads on to the most curious thing about watching Greenland. Because bless the National, but once they decide to do something they don’t do it by halves. Despite its obvious flaws, despite it being a vapid and disjointed play, despite it being broken, Greenland has obviously been lavished with love. And the staging of turns out to be absolutely superb.

I don’t know whether to attribute it to Bijan Sheibani’s direction or Bunny Christie’s design, but somebody has sat down – like a loving mother blind to her offspring’s flaws – and worked out how to do right by this play. The result is actually rather spectacular. I saw here visual effects which, by themselves, are hardly unprecedented but which when put together into one production become something of a tour de force. None of it works really, because it feels disjointed and the play doesn’t carry it, but as a proof of concept of what the National Theatre is capable of in technical terms it’s unparalleled. Scarcely a moment goes by without something falling from the ceiling or descending into the floor, a character being hoisted to the rafters, fire emerging from the stage or a magical puppet commanding the stage. This technical aplomb was particularly impressive given that this was a first preview.

Of course a production cannot claim victory on style and technical finesse alone, now matter how impressive the capabilities of the Lyttelton. The most important part of a theatremaker’s job is to present compelling characters behaving in human ways on stage. In the end it is that, rather than bells or whistles, that lend theatre its power – power which is absent in Greenland.