It’s World Earth Day today (April 22nd) but do we have cause to celebrate? With President Biden announcing a virtual global summit on climate change and Prince William urging for there to be the same sense of purpose and inventiveness to tackle the problem as has been seen in the development of coronavirus vaccines, the whole business of the environment is once again front and centre of the news. We are, according to some experts living in the Anthropocene era; although this is not an officially recognised geological unit it marks a period when mankind’s influence on the planet has had a significant (and mostly damaging) effect. Physical theatre group GymJam (great name) have constructed a new piece which examines many of these issues and have released through Oxford Playhouse. Rather portentously titled Anthropocene: The Human Era, it is an engaging piece of work that comes at things from a slightly different angle and makes for an interesting excursion into a world of choices.
For, cleverly, the piece is structured as a series of decisions which the viewer has to make in order to progress through the event, echoing the choices we will have to make and continue to make as individuals if the predicted descent into oblivion is to be halted/reversed. And so, options are given at each stage of the narrative and it’s up to you to select your pathway; if you don’t it will select for you so it can be that random. It starts simply enough with the main characters, Megan and her partner, choosing whether they will drink orange juice or coffee at breakfast – or rather with you choosing for them. We then follow Megan to the loo where she is about to employ a pregnancy testing kit but first her mind takes a wander to contemplate what it will be like bringing new life into our modern world and her mind conjures up all sorts of scenarios in which this happens, or doesn’t according to viewer choice, and what the ramifications will be. One of the inspirations behind the piece is the so called “birth strikes” by women who refuse to have children in light of the climate crisis, and this is one of Megan’s options.
Of course, from here on in I can only comment on the aspects I chose, and this may be completely different from your own experience – though I did replay some sections to see how choices panned out. So, in my selected scenario Megan has her child (pretty much a Greta Thunberg lookalike) who in turn has her own child and we see some of the problems that will occur two generations down the line – global fires and floods feature heavily. However, where I half expected it to be a rather gloomy sobering experience there was something quite uplifting about many of the sections which tinged the messages being put over with a sense of hope and purpose. There are things which can be done and towards the end of the piece there are clear suggestions about how this can be achieved.
I’m not totally sure that it is theatre in the usual sense of the word as there are a number of filmed sections taking place in various locations and which are evidently highly polished; the piece is definitely good to look at. However, at its core, there are movement sequences which are clearly happening in an obviously theatrical black box space with light/sound used to heighten the emotive force. There’s also a good deal of voiceover comment from the movers and shakers in the environmental world – David Attenborough’s mellowed tones open and close proceedings although hearing from Donald J. Trump yet again was less than palatable. The Directors William Townsend and Gavin Maxwell keep the camera moving fluidly through the energetic and talented ensemble of six (plus the gorgeous black Labrador) who concentrate on relaying emotion through movement; there is very little dialogue, as might be expected. It put me in mind of some of Gecko’s work – which I mean as a compliment.
The variations I saw took me about fifty minutes to work through, though running time will vary according to selections made. There’s a relatively early bail out point (badged “Credits”) which you might want to avoid in order to get the full experience – and you should, because most of the serious messages are contained in the later part of the film. Or alternatively at the end there’s an option to replay so you can make some more choices to see how things work out. More vitally at the end of the show there’s a call to arms to make some other important decisions of your own. Well done to GymJam and commissioning theatre the Oxford Playhouse for contributing to World Earth Day in quite such an original way.
Anthropocene: The Human Era is available via Oxford Playhouse’s website – click here
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