Because Richard Bean's play The Heretic is about climate change, it attracted the notice of hardline climate change denier Andrew Bolt in the weeks running up to its opening. There was a minor flurry of polemic that at once excoriated the "arts community" for its leftie lockstep, and on the other jubilated that at last a climate change denier was being granted her proper prominence. (Granted by whom? That very same "arts community" - apparently an identikit bunch who dress in black, live in Brunswick and plot the downfall of the RSL.) The logical absurdity of this sums up Bolt's usual modus operandi, and is hardly worth addressing. But I assume, operating on the basis that "no publicity is bad publicity", that this kind of controversy is why The Heretic was programmed. I can't think of any other reason.
|Andrew McFarlane and Noni Hazlehurst in The Heretic. Photo: Jeff Busby|
It's hard not feel a kind of colonial resentment that so many resources - an excellent cast and design team, a main stage budget, hours of work and attention - have been thrown at a British play of such unrelenting mediocrity. Bean's play is given a much better production than it deserves. If we're going to support mediocrity, let's at least keep it local: we have budding Williamsons aplenty here, with the added bonus that they're at least addressing regional specifics. But let me not get carried away with reactionary nationalism, a hat that doesn't really suit my complexion.
The Heretic, as is known to anybody who has followed the jejune controversy, concerns Dr Diane Cassell (Noni Hazlehurst), a climate scientist at the University of York who specialises in measuring sea levels. She has written a paper which questions the consensus that sea levels are rising and which, according to everyone around her, means that she is about to topple the whole edifice of scientific consensus around climate change. This alarms her boss and former lover, Professor Kevin Maloney (Andrew McFarlane), who is trying to swing a lucrative sponsorship for his Earth Science department and believes that publication of the paper will queer his pitch. She also starts receiving death threats from an extremist environmental group called the Sacred Earth Militia.
Meanwhile, she is tutoring a young greenie, Ben Shotter (Shaun Goss), teaching him that science isn't about belief, but sceptical investigation. Duh. She has a vexed relationship with a home tutored, anorexic daughter, the spiky Phoebe (Anna Samson), who is, inevitably, a member of Greenpeace. That takes care of Generation Y, who are portrayed as bonkers idealists obsessed with political correctness. Phoebe's favourite term of abuse is "fascist!", and Ben, who refuses to travel in a petrol-fuelled car, has a panic attack because his farts are swelling the methane level of greenhouse gases. The plot is further complicated by a human resources manager, Catherine Tickell (Katy Warner) and a sinister ex-army security guy, Geoff Tordoff (Lyall Brooks).
The result is like nothing so much as watching one of those BBC family comedies starring Zoë Wanamaker that clutter up our tv screens, with relationships that strain credulity but which reflect given wisdoms about how people are supposed to behave. Aside from Diane, who is clearly the hero of this work, all the characters are exaggerated cliches, mouthpieces for rolling wisecracks and the odd piece of situation comedy (Andrew McFarlane, in fact, does some marvellous drunk acting, which counts among the highlights). Meanwhile, the plot rolls on, referencing every discredited wisdom in the climate deniers' arsenal - dodgy sea level measurements in the Maldives, the Climategate scandal, the mistaken IPCC claim that the Himalayan glaciers are melting - with nary a glimpse of counter-argument.
In the world of Bean's play, every real-life circumstance is drawn through the mirror and reflected backwards. In the real world, for example, it's the scientists who warn about climate change who get death threats. And it's the denialists who refuse to be sceptical about their beliefs, ignoring the vast volumes of heavily referenced data that supports its reality in favour of a few cherry-picked typos and inconsistencies. But these reversals only fit with the deeper conservatism of the whole enterprise: The Heretic is bourgeois theatre par excellence, bathing us in a tepid glow of pseudo-humanist warmth. Do we really need to think? The answer is, only so far as it doesn't disturb any comfortable assumptions.
There's a potential drama in here about the perils of non-conformity and, in particular, the suffocating entanglements of bureaucracy. Bean is aware of this - at one point, he references Galileo, which makes you think of what Brecht did with his heretic. But the promise of any real engagement, dramatic or intellectual, splutters out into farce, for the want of any real argument or compelling dramatic structure. There's so much gumph being shoved down our throats that parts of the play are a glorified lecture. More tellingly, Dr Diane Cassell is so busy knocking over straw men with her little finger that there's absolutely no conflict: on the one side, we have a heroic sceptic; on the other, we have a bunch of deluded greenies and corrupt academics busy falsifying their data.
Given this, it's a tribute to the cast that they get as much as they do out of this play. Matt Scholten's production, in his debut for the MTC, gives the action some legs: there's a lot of comic stage business, and the cartoonish portraits of the minor characters are drawn with a sharp pen that rescues some moments of humanity. Hazlehurst, who is on stage for almost the entire performance, gives an authoritative performance of a complicated woman, passionate and caustic, and her scenes with McFarlane are particularly enjoyable.
The show is directed swiftly and with detail, making the least of the text's digressionary longueurs, and comes with an immersive soundscape from Jethro Woodward that deserves a much better occasion. If nothing else, The Heretic brings to the surface the noxious ideology that underlies so much "topical" conservative theatre. And I have a horrible feeling that it will do very well. After all, it's nice to be reassured that there's really nothing to worry about.
The Heretic, by Richard Bean, directed by Matt Scholten. Set design by Shaun Gurton, costumes by Esther Marie Hayes, lighting by Lisa Mibus, composition and sound by Jethro Woodward. With Noni Hazlehurst, Anna Samson, Shaun Goss, Lyall Brooks, Andrew McFarlane and Katy Warner. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until June 23.