“Theatre’s function is in creating art…that is the most radical and galvanising thing it can do."
I caught Rupert Goold at the end of his run of the musical Spring Awakening at the Almeida Theatre. Given his schedule, it didn’t seem unusual that we talked virtually as he walked around the streets of Islington on a late Wednesday afternoon.
Although the first performance of Frank Wedekind’s original play was over 100 years ago, its enduring narrative of adolescent anarchy was a natural backdrop to our conversation. I started by asking Rupert about his views on the role of young theatre-makers in producing work about the climate crisis.
“There is a liberty to youth…in terms of challenging orthodoxies," he tells me, referring to the direct action of my generation in reacting to the climate crisis. He cavitates this by joking that he doesn’t want to get too ‘Marxist’ in his answer. But he is right in suggesting that there is a relative ease in which young people can challenge the norm, illustrated by Greta Thunberg’s ability to mobilise action.
“There is some kernel of truth in that you only get…genuinely free, radical voices from the young," Rupert says. I remember the marches in March 2019, which led into what felt like a summer of change. Whilst I didn’t personally attend, I can recall the conversations I had with friends: the conflict between our responsibility to the planet and the pressures of our GCSEs.
We shift to Rupert’s direction of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London which examines the generational impact of the climate crisis. He describes it as exploring the “perpetual and eternal script between the young and the old", with the play ending with a changed world from a young woman’s advocation. His interest in this conflict developed because of his two teenage children and their engagement in climate change marches. This piqued Rupert’s own interest in the spirit of Spring Awakening as a play about speaking truth to power and the “incredibly radicalising” power of theatre to enact social change.
Yet, he is hesitant to accept that theatre’s starting point is its politics. He tells me “we make art to find pattern and link and interpretation through the random…brutal chaos of life and so that is innately interpretable rather than predictive." Rupert remembers telling one politically engaged artist: “I find your politics very predictable and your art totally wild and unpredictable…and I’m very happy about that combination.” I’m inclined to accept that the work is more impactful if the form can “reveal” the subject instead of being carried by the political sentiment.
He is sensitively aware of this burden of authority experienced by the playwright. “A play…is quite often several years of your life…I think that is where the weight of pressure comes from," he says. We talk about Oil by Ella Hickson, and I recall that her expansive play on Empire and the environment took six years to conceive. As Hickson herself described, the subject matter of a play is often more of a “preoccupation”, plaguing the writer with its potential.
However, the difficulty of conceiving a play about climate change specifically comes from its scale. “Climate change doesn’t have a lived experience and it isn’t about a single identity," Rupert says, “it touches on all of us often in quite imperceptible ways.” As a self-confessed “populist”, he perfectly captures the ethos of what theatre should be in relation to the climate crisis: “theatre works with character. What is the character of the climate emergency? How can one play…capture this impossibly largely, conceptual idea?” Rather than abstract ideas, narrative should be driven by action. Perhaps the search for its ‘character’ is about finding the way it defines our individual lives as well as its interactions with the collective.
Whilst the conversation of climate change revolves around the point of ‘no return’, there are significant barriers to theatre’s practical contribution in preventing damage to the environment.
Rupert admits that the first lockdown caused him to re-interrogate the identity of the Almeida Theatre. In Islington, it is as much a national venue as it is a local one. “There is no real substitute to being in the room," he says, “liveness has to be at the essence of it." Their closure reminded me of the shortfalls of digital theatre, unable to match that sense of shared connection.
By the necessity of theatre’s form, it needs a physical audience: an innate challenge to sustainability. Given Rupert’s artistically challenging body of work, I’m not surprised that he is quick to agree that there is a tension between creative freedom and sustainability.
“How do you evaluate…theatre…that [was]…less than ideally sustainable in its concept and production and yet has…radically changed people’s ideas?” While Rupert has been Artistic Director, the Almeida Theatre has expanded its sustainability practise, noted by Creative Green (an environment certification for arts venues) in 2019. However, theatre’s form means that there is a limitation to how far this can go without fundamental shifts in practise.
Although the Theatre Green Book (a new standard for producing theatre in the climate crisis) will undoubtedly improve the sustainability of the industry, both Rupert and I agreed this is restrictive. With the necessity of compromise, it is a challenge to the boldness of a designer’s vision.
The climate crisis has had a profound impact on the development of theatre, perhaps fuelling an innate political responsibility within playwrights to respond to these growing ecological pressures. Yet, as Rupert reminds me at the end of our conversation, “theatre’s function is in creating art…that is the most radical and galvanising thing it can do."
Rupert Goold CBE is an award-winning director, working primarily in theatre. He is the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre in London, and was the Director of Headlong Theatre Company from 2005-2013.
Noah Robinson was a junior runner-up in the 2020 Orwell Youth Prize, with his piece 'Here There Are No People', and is currently an Orwell Youth Prize Fellow.
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