If Richard Bean's goal in writing this play is to get under the skin of well-meaning green-minded liberals such as me, he may have hit the target. It's some time since I've seen a play that left me as annoyed as this one. But the reason for the steam rising from my ears isn't so much my distaste for the playwright's views as my boggle-eyed shock at his inept writing.
I greatly enjoyed Bean's last play England People Very Nice, which managed to be rude about everyone in this multicultured sceptred isle -- English, French, Jewish, Irish, West Indian, Bengali. This was a politically incorrect and refreshing satire on all our prejudices, a kind of quickfire joke-stuffed historical comic strip designed to be equally offensive to everyone. One of the reasons it worked was that fully-rounded characters weren't needed, nor was a plausible plot. But The Heretic is a different kind of play, a traditional two-act naturalistic comedy, in which Bean attempts again to poke fun at the prevailing conventional wisdom, but finds himself up the dramatic creek without a paddle.
Let's deal with the story first. Dr Diane Cassell is a lecturer in geophysics and geodynamics in the Faculty of Earth Sciences at a fictional university in York, whose research on sea levels in the Maldives shows that they are not, as popularly supposed, about to disappear into the Indian Ocean. As played by Juliet Stevenson, she's a feisty, sharp-tongued academic warrior but -- just like a little woman -- bursts into tears when she receives a death threat from a bunch of eco-terrorists who sign themselves the Sacred Earth Militia. So she's human after all. Her 21-year-old home-educated daughter Phoebe is anorexic and thumps her mum. Diane's insistence on publishing her research leads to her suspension on grounds of 'mental capacity' at the hands of Professor Kevin Maloney, her head of department and former lover. Other visitors to her red-brick university office include Geoff, a yellow-jacketed campus security officer, and 19-year-old student Ben. All of these characters, except for the noble Diane, seem to be supporters of what Bean clearly regards as the Great Global Warming Hoax. Geoff is particularly dodgy because he likes switching off the lights. They're all either bonkers, stupid, evil terrorists, or just cowardly compromisers. There's also a sinister university personnel officer who appears to be Gestapo-trained. Much of the story is closely based on the 'Climategate' controversy provoked by the hacking of University of East Anglia emails. With one melodramatic exception, the key plot moments are revealed simultaneously to the audience and the characters, without the shift of perspective which a bit of dramatic irony can deliver. In good plays characters reveal themselves when we see them making key decisions, but here the opportunities are missed; when Diane decides to risk her career by publishing her research and by confronting the Maldives High Commissioner in the Newsnight studio, we see her being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, but we don't learn why she did it. When her boss Kevin sacks her, it might have been dramatically more effective for the audience to learn about this before Diane does, but again the dramatist seems unable to pull off the trick of imparting information to the audience while disguising it from his characters. In the second half of the play the action moves to Diane's cottage in the country, and zig-zags from comedy into implausible melodrama and a happy ending of teeth-rotting sugariness.
Diane's heretical view of the world, which the author appears to share, is that 'Green is a proxy for anything. Class war. Hate your dad. Hate America...It's the perfect religion for the narcissistic age. It provides a clear definition of sin. Drive to work - sinful. Cycle - righteous. Fly to Crete - sinful. Go camping in the New Forest - righteous.' Diane drives a gas-guzzling big Jaguar (implausible on a lecturer's salary, but we'll let that pass) and declares: 'Cars are liberating, democratic and feminist. And the day when Greenpeace has succeeded in pricing the poor out of the skies and off the roads will not be a good day for the planet, it will be a good day for totalitarianism.' The choice is between cars, electricity and central heating, or going back to nature which means hunger, cold and dying in childbirth. Global warming is a gigantic fraud, and Diane refuses to believe in it; she's a scientist and not a politician, as she keeps on reminding us. That presumably is why she talks so easily about totalitarianism -- which is not normally a system of government that puts saving the natural environment anywhere on its list of priorities.
The problem I have with all this nonsense isn't just political, it's artistic. Climate science is inherently uncertain and ambiguous -- just the stuff of drama, you might think. There is a real play to be written about how scientific argument about climate, like religious argument, is often a matter of faith and belief rather than evidence and proof. But this isn't it. Bean's one-sided views on the environment place him alongside Melanie Phillips and Christopher Booker at the paranoid end of what I would call the fruitcake spectrum. The trouble is that his position is so extreme that it makes for a completely unbalanced play, with all the dice loaded on one side of the stage. The playwright doesn't seem to have heard of the Shavian principle that the villains should have all the best speeches and the best arguments. The characters in this play are cardboard cutouts, and it's not the fault of the actors or the director that they remain just mouthpieces for the author's views. One of Bean's weaknesses as a writer is that he loves the sound of his own voice and can't resist putting his own witticisms into his character's mouths; after a while the irrelevant flood of jokes about Gaydar, Theresa May, Pol Pot and Baden-Powell (to take just two pages at random) just palls, because they aren't character-led. I could just about believe in Juliet Stevenson's Diane and in James Fleet's pusillanimous professor, but I could not for a moment suspend my disbelief watching daughter Phoebe (anorexic but apparently bouncing with health) and her student admirer Ben. Johnny Flynn, playing Ben, has to struggle with a character who is sometimes as thick as two planks and sometimes a brilliant intellectual . At first he's an inarticulate young tosser who can barely speak a coherent sentence and would seem unlikely to pass a single GCSE; he won't travel in a minibus which burns fossil fuels because 'I wanna save the planet innit' -- then suddenly he's drawing complex post-doctoral graphs about climate change on a whiteboard.
The Heretic has had relatively good reviews, and the audience at the Royal Court seemed to lap up the corny jokes. I rather suspect the critics' warmth reflects the fact that a week earlier they had all sat through the National Theatre's Greenland, a jointly authored play about the environment -- which I avoided after reading the universally dire reviews. The Heretic must have seemed a bundle of laughs by comparison. But the loopy plot (I won't give away the painful details of the ending) and poor characterisation of Bean's play are not helped by the insertion of indigestible slabs of climate science which are dramatically inert, or by scenes in which people read things out from their laptops. Brecht managed it a lot better in The Life of Galileo. In the second half the author doesn't seem able to find good reasons to get his characters on and off stage when he needs to, and the ending is limp. The dialogue, as stuffed with gags as an episode of Friends, has no room for subtlety or emotional subtext.
Like the poster image of a flimsy iceberg with a polar bear perched on top, this play struggles to stay afloat, despite the efforts of director Jeremy Herrin, whose excellent record at the Royal Court includes Polly Stenham's two wonderful plays That Face and Tusk Tusk. I escaped into Sloane Square like a drowning polar bear, feeling as though I had spent two and a half hours in a saloon bar being harangued by someone who only reads the Daily Express.