Preview: The Unbelievable Ending of the World

Paul Norris 9 March 2019
Image Credit: The Unbelievable Ending of the World via Facebook

It’s a favourite hobby of every civilisation to imagine its own destruction. From the Mayans’ 2012 prediction to Ragnarök, from the Book of Revelation to Lord Byron’s ‘dream which was not all a dream’ where
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Byron’s vision was given some scientific credibility by Lord Kelvin’s 1862 prediction that the sun would run out of energy, leading to ‘heat death’ and eternal winter. Today’s dream of destruction is not so much not all a dream as not at all a dream, and is already coming true. No one under the age of 32 has lived through a colder than average month. With this terrifying shift, environmental awareness has become a new moral axis, with a judgement day which is soon but also vague, as it is difficult to imagine a climate disaster scenario where the vegans are separated from the rest of us like the sheep from the goats.

Students have responded by protesting outside Senate House, altering lifestyles, making noise in whatever way they can. Will Maclean has written and directed a play, and it is as sensitive and complex as it is knowingly futile. In it, environmental morals conflict with conventional morals, as a woman (called April, like the month when the weather gets warmer) kills her own child. With Guardian think-pieces every few weeks about why not having children is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint, it’s easy enough to guess her logic. It’s a conflict which plays out in small ways in all of our lives: buying a present for a friend covered in plastic packaging is a good action according to a traditional, anthropocentric morality, but it is hard to know how to balance this against its environmental impact.

The play constantly re-examines April’s extreme decision, so that it grows in complexity and uncertainty. A sort-of narrator called the Tester provides commentary to scenes after they occur. Played by Olivia Miller, this character resembles a graduate student lecturer, combining embarrassed erudition and self-doubt. Her explanations of a scene’s significance raise more questions than they answer. Olivia says her experience as an audience member was if anything more important than her experience as an actor in shaping such an interpretative, reactive role.

This conversation happened during a rehearsal in the Corpus Playroom. It’s a space where the actors are close to you, yet always torn between two perpendicular halves of an audience, giving it the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of a half-built panopticon. It is always too hot. In other words: the perfect venue.

I got a glimpse of the creative process, as Olivia asked for clarification from writer-director Will, saying ‘This is the complicated bit that I’m very confused about’.

Will’s response evinced the ensemble approach he has fostered in the rehearsal room, as he said he would ‘try and argue its case and if it’s unconvincing we’ll have a rethink.’ He began to say ‘So what you’re saying is…’ but corrected himself: ‘I know you know what you’re saying.’

There’s always a danger that a play directed by its writer becomes an ego-trip, but Will seemed well aware of this and always regarded his script as a first proposition, and was open to rebuttals or revisions. The ideas the play deals with are complex, and what reads well on the page won’t always translate to an audience. In the same conversation, he admitted that there was ‘definitely a way of saying it that makes it clearer than it is here’, and proceeded to incorporate some of Olivia’s reinterpretations to ‘make it a bit more clear’.

Although its ideas are heavy, the scenes I saw had quite a light tone, and all the actors I spoke to stressed the play’s humour as much as its intellectual heft. I was amused when talking to Jamie Sayers, a stalwart of the theatre scene who has been in every play I’ve previewed (by coincidence – though I sometimes feel like a one-man fan club), as a scene went on in front of us where a teacher demanded silence from a class. The words ‘Quiet. I’m waiting,’ have such an embedded Pavlovian response that I stopped our conversation for a few seconds and paid attention.

Jamie plays Leo (the astrological sign associated with late summer, when the weather gets colder), April’s husband. Their relationship is stretched by the disparity between his pragmatism and her idealism, as they balance their own quality of life with environmental concerns. (As well as being someone who investigates or tests, a tester is a canopy over a bed, held up by posts or suspended from the ceiling, so presumably Olivia’s interpretations are in some way hanging over April and Leo’s relationship, protective and precipitous). Jamie is also Mick, a conspiracy theorist at April’s office. Jamie was attracted to the play by the experimental bent of the script, and by the prospect of working with new writing, which he has never done before. He admits that acting can be egotistical, but has found this play humbling, forcing him to focus more on getting the play across than on his individual performance.

I’ve not been to a play before where everyone seemed so committed. Any response to the impending environmental catastrophe is tinged with futility, and it is hard to know if not eating a sausage or taking a plane trip makes any tangible difference. This play’s cast seem aware that they are speaking from quite a comfortable position (with the addition of my presence, half the people in the room went to the same South-West London private school), but wanted to push themselves and their audience into discomfort. This is not a didactic play. But by exploring a life lived with the same tensions as ours, all the actors can do (to paraphrase Stanley Cavell) is to express, as fully as they can, someone’s world, and attract our undivided attention to our own.

Image Credit: The Unbelievable Ending of the World via Will Maclean

Tickets for The Unbelievable Ending of the World are available here.