The best theatre event of 2012

Michael Billington, The Guardian from 5 December, 2012

A lecture about overpopulation and climate change turned out to be the
unlikely highlight of a year that also featured an intriguing Russian invasion

The most momentous theatrical
performance of 2012 was only seen by around 1,600 people, as it took place at
the Royal Court’s
small Theatre Upstairs. Not Jez Butterworth’s The River, good as that was, but
an hour-long, illustrated lecture by Stephen Emmott, Ten
Billion, outlining the catastrophic
consequences of overpopulation and climate change. I came out shaking with
fear, but also moved by theatre’s capacity to confront the emergency facing our

Some would argue Emmott’s
talk, with its array of statistics, would have been just as digestible, perhaps
more so, as an article in a newspaper, magazine or specialist journal. But that
is to miss the point. Emmott’s very presence lent force to his arguments.
Describing himself as a “rational pessimist”, he was quiet, humane,
lucid and full of restrained anger over the inaction of governments around the
world. The fact that Emmott was obliged, by an accident, to hobble round a
mock-up of his Cambridge
office on crutches added a sense of urgency.

This was theatre doing what it
does best: confronting us with unpalatable facts about our very existence. This
doesn’t mean that there is no room for invented stories or that King Lear and
The Lion King have suddenly become redundant. But Ten Billion, directed by
Katie Mitchell, shocked us into a new awareness of the future, and even the
existing present, with ecosystems being destroyed, the atmosphere polluted,
temperatures rising and a billion people facing water shortages. I don’t know a
single person who saw it who didn’t feel it was a life-changing experience; I
only hope the promise that it would soon be filmed for TV becomes a reality. If
enough people, especially those in positions of power, could see Emmott’s
lecture, it might, just might, help to save our planet from destruction.

Best trend: The Russian invasion, with the brilliant Vakhtangov
Theatre’s Measure for Measure and Uncle Vanya in London,
and another Muscovite troupe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) in Stratford and Edinburgh.

portent: Classic comedy and farce (She
Stoops to Conquer, The Magistrate) being tricked out at the National with
gratuitous music.

bore: Audiences texting, tweeting
and eating during a show, and then engaging in a ritual standing ovation.