Wednesday, January 21, 2015

'New Atlantis' at The Crystal, 20th January 2015

In 1627 Francis Bacon published his utopian novel New Atlantis. Here he laid out an optimistic vision of humanity's future where "generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit" thrive. It sounds lovely, but reality has fallen somewhat short of his dream. This is where LAStheatre steps in with New Atlantis, this event, part of the Enlightenment Cafe series, is an educational, interactive theatre experience that examines the consequences of climate change and and forces us to grapple with the consequences of our actions

Step through the glass doors of The Crystal and it's 2050 and you're in the headquarters of 'New Atlantis'. This organisation, replacing the defunct United Nations, was created to implement solutions to environmental catastrophe or, ultimately, to save the human race. But New Atlantis is undergoing some changes; its leader, the elderly Bryony Weller (Tricia Kelly), is stepping down due to ill health and the we must select a replacement for her.

The candidates for the job represent competing philosophies for dealing with environmental catastrophe. Representing Industry is Marcia Weiss (Nicola Blackman), whose technocratic free market politics promise prosperity without alterations to quality of life. Defence is headed by Major Simeon Giallo (Jonathan Jaynes), who explains that with resources dwindling we need collectivisation backed up by military might to ensure fair distribution. Nicola MacGloss (Nicky Goldie) leads Reform, arguing that we need to change the way we live, encouraging reduced consumption of meat and rethinking consumerism. Finally there's the mysterious Generation Alpha, a revolutionary group comprised of disenfranchised youth arguing that we need to rip it all up and start again.

Once this has been established we're left to explore New Atlantis at our own pace. The experience is subdivided department, various rooms exploring diverse topics like combating piracy on the high seas, the ethics of extracting Antarctica's natural resources, space exploration and debates on environmental social policy. This set-up rewards the curious, outgoing participant; there's a mix of actors and proper scientists milling about, all eager to draw you into a debate or explain some esoteric bit of climate science.

My first impression was that the amount of data on display was a bit overwhelming. I examined the blueprints of an experimental tri-hulled ship with interest, but had very little idea what to make of it. It's only when I threw myself into a couple of arguments that things really came together for me. In one of the Reform rooms, debates on possible future policies were taking place and so, to liven things up a bit, So I forcefully advocated mandatory veganism, state seizure of farmland, contraceptives in the water supply and the distribution of suicide kits to the elderly.  Hey - big problems require bold solutions, right?

After exploring each department we head back to the main room to hear stump speeches by each candidate. These are painfully realistic, stuffed full of vague promises, fancy rhetoric and snide insinuations. The much discussed Generation Alpha makes a dramatic and timely appearance, 'hacking' the broadcast and giving us a fourth option of 'revolution'. We then vote on what we want to happen and, hearteningly, the crowd chooses to put its trust in the youth, rip up calcified power structures and start again.

In trying to both educate and entertain, New Atlantis is to some extent pulling in two directions at once. Repeated like a mantra is the phrase "of course, back in 2015" when discussing issues. This is of course perfectly understandable, the show's sincerely scientific bent means the further it strays into futurist speculation the less useful it is. Still, it does somewhat drain away the idea of immersing ourselves in the world of 2050.

Bigger problems lie in the extremely anticlimactic ending. Everything has been leading up to the big vote to decide the course of the future. By the time we come to press the button a lot of thought should have gone into our decision, which is largely about balancing the freedom of individuals versus the survival of the species. It's tense as the results are read and then finally a winner! Supporters of the other sides gasp. The winners cheer. And then? Well, the lights go up, we collect our coats and leave. It would have been nice to learn what the consequences of our choice were, some kind of reaction from the other candidates or speech from the victor. 

Dramatic quibbles aside, at least New Atlantis succeeds at being extremely interesting, teaching me all about the sobering long-term effects of environmental damage. There's interesting background about the future desertification of the central United States (which results in mass immigrations to Canada), the rationing of London's water supply or energy company executives being convicted for damaging the environment. In a world this screwed (most climate scientists say we're even now long past the point of no return) the policies of all three positions are equivalent to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The show is full of quiet, insistent explanations that the situation as it stands is unsustainable, and that as long as we labour under the delusion that globalist, consumer capitalism is indefinitely sustainable we're pigs blindly trudging up a slaughterhouse conveyor belt. It's not that that there's no hope, but in the course of our lifetimes anyone under 50 is going to have to re-evaluate their privileged geographical, economic and political position.

So what did I conclude from New Atlantis? Primarily that the human race is an instinctively greedy species that can't help but consume resources to the point of depletion and has little-to-no real grasp of the long term consequences of our actions. So are we boned?


We're so boned. 

New Atlantis is at The Crystal, Royal Victoria Docks until 25th January. Tickets available here.

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