Tom Doig

Appetite for Destruction: four plays about the end of the world

(Originally published in The Lifted Brow, issue 10, May 2011)

The small crowd gathered in the dark outside Newcastle's old Police Station is finally ushered in. Aden Rolfe, director of the Critical Animals festival, which is staging the show, is handing out torches and urging us to be careful as we walk down the dim prison hallway. “Please keep your torches on and pointed at the stage during the performance,” he instructs, “there are no other lights left.” We giggle, play along with this cutesy site-specific tour stuff and find our way into a room, more like a ruin, where Briohny Doyle, the writer/performer, is really, really glad we made it. “Thank god you're here! I didn't think anyone else—well, you're here now. I think we're the only ones left. I've made tea, do you like tea?” she says. The performance is Meet Me at the End (2010), and we are the only people left alive on this treacherous, brutal lump of rock. There's bikkies.

Imagining that you're one of the last people on earth seems to satisfy some fundamental longing. We love thinking about the destruction of civilisation—god knows all those idiots deserve it—but the great thing is that we are always fine. A bit lonely perhaps, but alive, and ready to procreate—for the future of humanity! All apocalyptic fantasies are thus post-apocalyptic fantasies, because you can't imagine yourself out of the equation. Our age's greatest piece of climate change art so far, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), is a pretty much perfect enactment of this dark fancy. Father and son travel across a gutted landscape, prolonging their hopeless lives, and for what? Why don't they just top themselves? ... Because they don't know what else to do. Besides—they might be the only good guys left, and with all those nasty cannibals around, the earth still needs good guys.

Even if the most depressing climate change coalmine-canaries are right (which they are), it's going to be hard to shake our Paradise 2.0 daydream. End of the world narratives are as old as storytelling itself; all cultures complement their creation myths with destruction myths—and we always seem to scrape through. In the current century, part of the difficulty with getting our heads around the threat of climate change is that we've heard it all before. The Great War, the Great Depression, World War II, Y2K, SARS, Bird Flu, Pig Flu... and now we're supposed to freak out about our “carbon footprint” when flying has never been this cheap? Sure the world's going to end... later. Meanwhile, we've got the best seats in the house—and I want a fish meal!

The lights dim. I'm nervous, because I'm sitting in the Melbourne Theatre Company's Sumner Theatre, and I've been burned by their plays before—no matter the ostensible subject, they always seem to produce complacent, bourgeois Baby Boomer fairytales. This one, though, sounds different. It's called When the Rain Stops Falling (by Andrew Bovell, 2009), and the poster has all these fish raining apocalyptically from the sky, so it should be about... drought?Extinction? Hardship. The challenges we will face living on a giant desert island which is cracking and peeling at the edges. It should be— Spotlight on an empty stage. A whoosh through the light. A... fish, a fish has fallen onto the stage? Wow. Cool... but imagine my surprise when this fine image turns out to be the only watchable part of a two-hour play. Imagine my incredulity when I find out the play is set in Alice Springs, in 2039, and that out there in the desert, after thirty years of climate change, it has been raining—something no climate scientist educated past Year 10 is predicting. Imagine my boredom when the play flashes out of this future, back to the 1950s, and submerges me in a domestic drama about a paedophile and the wife who loved him, while said paedophile's inexplicable sexual deviance causes freak weather events.

The fish from the first scene, anyway, turns out to be a dinky plot device enabling an estranged father to cook a nice fish meal for his estranged son in a fictional world where fish have been extinct for decades.Now imagine me cycling home, fuming about the problems with the show, and concluding that the only climate change “message” it could possibly contain is this: “Things will work out fine in the end! Even though there are no more fish left, when you really need one to help fix your dysfunctional father-son relationship, it might just fall out of the sky for you.” And the Baby Boomer MTC audience applauds, applauds, like rain that won't stop falling.

The lights dim. I've just made it to Castlemaine's Phee Broadway Theatre to watch The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, Deep Sea Explorer (2009). The show has been recommended to me as a “climate change comedy”, which is a genre I have become obsessed with. There is a white, circular screen onstage. A man enters, he is silent, Chaplinesque, endearing. He triggers a childlike Flash animation: the world as a lopsided circle. Iceberg, melting. Polar bear, swimming for it. Stick figure on desert island, next to little house. Water, rising, covering island. Stick figure swimming! Water, rising. Stick figure, sinking. Falling into chimney, stuck at the neck. Head falling off, bouncing away. I wince, squirm in my seat, shocked by the disconnect between cutesy presentation and ghastly content. Alvin Sputnik lives on the top of a ruined skyscraper that pokes out of the ocean like an iceberg. He goes on a long, lonely quest, not across a burnt land but down, down into a seemingly endless ocean, littered with cute little corpses. There is music, puppetry, op shop theatre magic. Tim Watts' artistry is absolutely spellbinding, and I willingly suspend my disbelief, because I assent to the show's central premise. When the rain stops falling, the world will be flooded, most of us will be screwed—and no amount of plot devices will change that.

Alvin Sputnik's ending doesn't sugar-coat the cyanide capsule. Our hero Alvin “saves the world”, but not himself, and it's not clear that there are any good guys left to repopulate. The play, then, lets me feel intense pleasure while pressed up against this unpleasant, intangible, terrifying, boring subject. It helps me imagine our otherwise unimaginable future. It takes my fantasy of surviving the apocalypse and shows me how lonely it would be.

The lights dim. I'm at Theatreworks in St Kilda for Benedict Hardie's Delectable Shelter (2011), a play about “rich white people”. It begins where Dr Strangelove (1964) left off: down the proverbial mineshaft, while back up top existence wraps to a close—this time not due to mutually assured destruction, but as part of a calculated holocaust, the plan of some scientists to reboot the climate by pumping the atmosphere full of chemicals and holding their breath for 350 years while it resettles. (In real life, Bill Gates has already spent at least $4.5 million researching comparable geoengineering projects.) Reginald, Biddie, Grayson, Mallory and Tor are stuck in a nightmare middle-class living room, hallucinatory carpet on all sides, a radioactive Van Gogh on the wall for entertainment. Nothing to do but Keep Calm and Carry On, climb the walls and, of course, repopulate. Biddie and co draw up a “wish list” of all the things their brave new world will contain, including bourgeois monstrosities like “heated carseats”, and it becomes clear that these people are the problem, the reason everyone outside their lounge is gone. They've ruined it for all of us, including MTC subscribers, and they haven't learnt a thing. But they can still see the light side of things: Biddie suggests that Tor's mother should come round for a roast, and they all laugh, howl, roar, like a rain that won't stop falling—and for a few seconds you really feel it, that outside those four walls there is nothing but death.

The algebra of repopulation gets crunchy, meanwhile, and things do not go well for young Grayson. Tension mounts, but on its way to somewhere awful, Delectable Shelter takes a turn for the small “a” absurd. Fast-forward 349 years, to a bunker full of interchangeable inbred weirdoes who worship a martyred Grayson and indulge in baroque devised theatre shenanigans. Worry about the Chinese, eat their parents on crackers. The play's Brechtian musical interruptions take on a new meaning, it's a masterful reveal, and I'm completely won over by this retarded vision of the future. But afterwards, I feel a bit let down—like I would've preferred less kookiness and more pathos. Piggy's broken glasses, Eva and Adolf in the bunker.

But maybe Benedict Hardie got it right. Maybe all his silliness speaks to a deeper truth. Humanity probably won't nobly splutter out, like a candle in the wind or a princess in a limo; somehow, it will scrape through. Not because we deserve to survive, but because that's what we do. And the future will only be as horrible as our ability to compare it to something else.

If we're mostly fucked already, at least climate change theatre can help us say: we saw it coming. We didn't have our heads all the way up our own bottoms. You've heard it all before, but please, once more with feeling: “A funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse...”

I can promise you that, in 2050, fish meals won't fall from the sky, unless they're inside planes. But we will always have each other. (To eat.) Because climate change isn't the end of the world—just the end of the world as we know it.