In 2019, playwright Dawn King was booking flights to New York for a writing residency. It was the day of the UK’s first large-scale School Strikes for Climate, a movement launched by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. Checking her news feed about her, King – who was planning to join the protests – realized he had forgotten her. He winces at the memory.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you think you’re so green, so liberal, but you’re not helping me, are you? In the future you will be judged harshly like everyone else. What are you actually doing? ‘”
So King did what he knows best: The script that emerged, assembled mostly in the early 2020 lockdowns, was The Trials, staged this month at London’s Donmar. The show imagines a world a few decades into the future where a group of people are on trial, Nuremberg-style, for their guilt in the climate crisis. How many flights did they take? Did they eat meat? Sure, they recycled, but so what? The penalties for exceeding personal carbon quotas are severe; jurors are played by teenagers who inherited the mess. The defendants are clearly substitutes for the rest of us, who toyed with while Rome (and many other places) burned.
The Trials is a “thought experiment,” explains King, but part of what makes this blame game chilling is that this is a nearer future than we want to think. In the play, the young jurors argue whether they can safely open a window because it’s so hot and polluted outside. Rehearsals began the day the UK Met Office issued its first ever red warning for extreme heat. On the afternoon I visit, fires are spreading once again in California and hundreds of people in Germany and the Czech Republic are being evacuated. As extreme as the scenario is, The Trials is certainly not science fiction. “Look around,” King says with a shrug. “In some places we are already there”.
In one scene where I watch evidence, the jurors fantasize about what it might be like to fly by plane, a form of transportation that has been essentially banned. By putting together tables and chairs in the jury room to simulate an airplane cabin, they rhapsodize that they have escaped the horrors at ground level – floods, food shortages, refugee crisis – and soar into the “blue sky” as theirs did. parents and grandparents. An iced Coke and a bag of peanuts in flight are luxuries impossible to imagine.
In another, somewhat sadder scene, they speculate what it might be like to encounter snow. The idea of going on a skiing holiday is mind-boggling. “I saw the video, but …” one of them says.
King’s decision to hire a group of teenagers (the youngest is 12, the eldest 18) gives the piece a lopsided energy. Yes, these guys are grappling with the aftermath of the climate crisis, but they also want to flirt, kiss, joke – just live their lives. Although the Donmar has hired some seasoned professionals – appear Joe Locke and William Gao, both stars of the Netflix series Heartstopper – some cast members have been found via the theater’s “Local” scheme, which brings schools and community groups from neighboring districts. Nearly 1,400 young people were involved, of which around 200 took part in intensive workshops at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
It seemed important to do so, explains director Natalie Abrahami: “The theme of the show seemed to demand it, somehow. This sense of activism, commitment.
What attracted Locke, now 18, to the project? It turns out he first read the script on a plane on the way to an acting job. He makes a face. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re both the generation that’s supposed to make the change, but they’re also here, pumping carbon,” he says.
Do you share the characters’ anger about who is responsible? “I don’t necessarily think it’s anger at a single generation,” she replies carefully. “It’s more like feeling deprived of rights. It makes many young people want to be involved in changing things ”.
Francis Dourado, 15, who has tested his GCSEs, is less diplomatic. “In the future, those people in power [now], they will be gone, ”he says softly. “We will be the ones left with a world that is already dying. It may already be too late to save him. I hope not, but … “
King has shape when it comes to staging dystopias. His hit comedy was 2011’s Foxfinder, which captivated critics with its haunting portrayal of a rural community where foxes are blamed for everything from bad harvests to contagion, like 17th-century witches, and must be eradicated at all costs. His punchy 2015 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was followed by a collaboration with grime MC and rapper Skepta, Dystopia987, who attempted to present what the club scene of the future might look like.
Partly it’s a coincidence, he laughs: You write a successful dystopia and the producers think that’s all you can do. “But the thing I would say is that right now we are living in a dystopia. We have just been in a 40 ° C heat wave, the fires are not only in Europe, but in Kent. How much more dystopian do you want to get? “
Court plays are nothing new, but when a German version of the play premiered in Düsseldorf last summer, some critics raised an eyebrow at how the script pits generations against each other, with adolescents called to denounce people of their parents’ age in different ways. that seem uncomfortable reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the McCarthyist witch hunts in the United States.
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Is the creative team worried that some people in the audience feel attacked? Abraham replies that The Trials is meant to provoke debate and hopefully action. “The drama is an act, without an interval; the second half is the conversation you have with whoever you have come to see the show. How does your way of thinking change? What do you want to change in your life? “
King says he’s on trial here like anyone else. “I’m not the one pointing the finger at other people, absolutely not.” He raises his hands. “From now on, people will always say to me, ‘Oh, did you fly? Didn’t you take the train? ‘ I’m putting myself here. “
Despite numerous attempts, theater has often struggled to communicate the immensity of the climate crisis or map out ways to resolve it. What makes this show different? “Play is activism; I wrote it to change things, “replies King, noting that the theater is partnering with environmental arts charity Julie’s Bicycle to measure its impact and is using the new Theater Green Book so that the set, props and other items are either reusable or recyclable.This will be a roadmap for future Donmar shows.
Despite the desolation it puts on stage, there is hope in The Trials as well, he adds. “There are elements of utopia. These young people live in a world where the climate emergency is taken seriously. We have to listen to him. “Locke agrees:” The show shows what the future could be, not what it will be. That’s an important distinction to make. “
When I ask him if he thinks people will really change their way of life, Dorado looks serious, looking much older than his years. “I think they will change because now more than ever we see everything happening so fast around us. A lot of people are starting to wake up and realize. “How about Locke?” You have to remain optimistic because otherwise you can’t change anything.
Abraham nods. “I’m kind of a hope freak,” he says with a smile. “You must be, right?”
• The Trials will be held at Donmar Warehouse, London, from 12 to 27 August. A new ticket assignment is released every day at 10:00.