'Ten Billion' review or 'Which way to the lecture hall?'

'Ten Billion', with Stephen Emmott
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Wednesday 18th July 2012

Stephen Emmott and his facts. Photo Credit: Steve Cummiskey

When I was growing up, Katie Mitchell was my hero. If I could've bought a poster of her, I would've put it bang above my bed. I'm not sure which show kick-started my obsession but I remember leaving every production tingling all over. I remember her shows making me so excited about what theatre could do and how it make me feel.

Nowadays, I often leave a Katie Mitchell production feeling pretty empty inside. I also feel a little stupid, as if Mitchell's trying to say a thousand things and I'm just not listening or watching in a way that'll enable me to hear her. All I know is that sense of glee – that life force that used jolt right through me during a Mitchell production – isn't there any more. At least, not for me.

I'm sure that 'Ten Billion' is a very clever and important show. I'm sure that Stephen Emmott – a man so smart he doesn't even have to use long words – is a committed and passionate researcher. I'm sure that he has a lot of useful things to say about the state of our planet and the hideous, vicious cycle of destruction we're currently spinning around in. But I'm still not very sure about this show.

What I really don't understand – and what I spent far too much time questioning during this production – is if 'Ten Billion' is actually meant to be a piece of theatre. We open on an unbelievably realistic set, jammed with the manifold and meticulous details we've come to expect of all of Mitchell's productions. The stage has been turned into an exact replica of Stephen Emmott's office in Cambridge and I've no doubt the angle of every 'haphazard' folder corresponds exactly with the original.

And then the lecture begins. Stephen Emmott announces very early on that he is no actor but a genuine professor. The trouble is, it takes me quite a while to believe him. Mitchell is such a playful but deliberate director that I become convinced this supposed 'lack of an act' might, in reality, be a very elaborate act indeed. It might sound like I'm overthinking matters - but it's hard not to overthink things when you're watching the show of a director who really, really likes to get you thinking.

Already, then, my mind is asking the sort of questions that distract from the show's purpose. I'm asking whether Mitchell is making a point by creating this realistic set; whether she's trying to say something about the false reality we all accept, when we pretend our planet isn't going to hell. I'm asking whether this professor is in fact an actor and whether our unthinking acceptance of his authority is meant to reflect our glazed acceptance of all the global warming spiel. I'm wondering where the catch is.

It turn out there isn't one. This really is a genuine lecture and the whole set – the whole Royal Court Theatre in fact – doesn't really add much. Sure, a few slides are chucked into the mix but they're nothing particularly flashy. Perhaps this restraint is meant to add to our fear; after all, why use snazzy theatrical effects, when the terrifying facts (we're taking far too much from our planet and not putting anything good back in) speak plainly enough for themselves.

But why, then, has Katie Mitchell put this lecture on a stage? And why has she tried, at least in part, to make it look like a piece of theatre? No matter how passionately Mitchell obviously feels about this topic, 'Ten Billion' hasn't really got me thinking about the state of the world. It's got me worrying about the state of theatre. Time and again, it seems that directors and writers are turning to lectures or journalistic rants in order to discuss the most important issues of our times. Why aren't they looking towards the theatre?


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