It’s tough being a polar bear in a world filled with inconsiderate human beings. Climate change is affecting nearly every fibre of their existence. Humans have been turning up the heat on planet earth ever since the industrial revolution. Consequently, the platforms of ice which polar bears hunt seals from are melting at an alarming rate. They are struggling to feed, and what’s more, the industrial pollutant PCB is weakening the bone in their dicks, making it more difficult for them to reproduce. It’s estimated that by 2060 their numbers are expected to plummet from 26,000 to just 9,000. If we were to place ourselves in anyone’s shoes at all, to make us really engage with this catastrophe, polar bears are a good choice. Powder Keg have done just that, albeit with varying success.
Not a single word is uttered during this performance. Ross McCaffrey, Hannah Mook and Jake Walton play three polar bears who stalk the white metal sheeted ice caps erected across the stage of the Royal Exchange Studio, an effective design by Liz Sheard. The bears react to products and waste of our society; Kit Kats, deodorants, empty crisp packets and Coca Cola bottles are inspected, used in a comedic way and then tossed. The actors embody the polar bears with a hapless endearing energy, which morphs into frustration as the play progresses and the waste products of our western world increasingly abound and confuse. By presenting the issue from the perspective of the polar bear, Powder Keg have skilfully managed to give us a different lens through which to consider the impact of climate change, but without a tangible story for the audience to connect to, the environmental points which they attempt to drive home, struggle to have the desired impact. This differs from the likes of Breach Theatre’s Tank which gave us a more vivid portrait of a suffering animal, by not just having the cast embody the movements of an animal, but by pinning it against a gripping backdrop of a story.
The intention of the performance is to make a real-world impact. A blackboard outside the studio asks the audience to write down how they arrived to the theatre. There’s also a column inviting you to write down what you can do to help. We learn from this column that all of the cast members have turned vegan – what they’re doing ‘to help’. They are obviously committed to the cause, and this comes through in how they inhabit the polar bears, conveying the exasperated bears convincingly. It’s an engaging piece at times but it misses the opportunity to really tap into the “collective consciousness” of the audience. Climate change is being driven forward primarily by industrialised capitalist nations, but those nations are made up of individuals who can and should make a difference. If someone wants to use theatre to tackle global warming, they need to isolate what causes apathy about the environment, and use this to present us with real tools for change. Powder Keg successfully draw attention to the issue but only give us the tip of the iceberg.