Sarah Braybrooke reviews The Heretic at the MTC
Global warming is contentious, political, and if you think about it enough, very frightening. It's also an excellent story. That's the bone that UK scientist Diane Cassell has to pick with the conventional view of climate change. Cassell wonders whether the idea of an imminent climate apocalypse is over-determined, 'a symptom of our need for a narrative fix'.
She's not a reactionary conservative or even a climate change denier per se. But she is an empiricist, and the data which she has been collecting about changes in sea level is messy and doesn't fit the neat picture endorsed by her colleagues. When she goes public with her doubts she sparks a controversy in the university where she works.
In the first half of the play Cassell's trajectory is reminiscent to that of Brecht's Galileo; a scientist with pure intentions victimized by the murky politics that surround her profession. Academia’s bureaucratic excesses are also satirized: every time a student closes a door on a room with a lecturer inside, the academic rushes to open it, lawsuits flashing before their eyes.
Apart from highlighting the corruption of the knowledge industry, a university setting is also an opportunity to really get stuck in to some weighty ideas; it’s a space in which a little didacticism is legitimised. The large amount of scientific information in the play feels fitting, given that Cassell values hard science above all else.
And herein lies one of the most knotty and interesting themes in the play: Cassell might look the virtuous scientist on the one hand, but as her daughter Phoebe points out, from a different angle her scepticism can also look like a kind of nitpicking control-freakery. Phoebe and the other 'greenie' characters in the play embody quite different sentiments at work in the anthropogenic climate change debate. They’re idealistic but also harbour the narcissistic conviction that humans are at the centre of everything and exhibit a darker kind of aggression towards the self.
Richard Bean's writing provides laughs all the way through, delivered by excellent performances from Noni Hazlehurst as Cassell and Anna Samson as brilliant-but-damaged Phoebe. Shaun Goss acquits himself well as a fanatical young student, despite having to perform a painful on-stage song and struggling with the accent – a kind of middle-class rude-boy patois.
Like Alan Bennet's phenomenally successful The History Boys, The Heretic's jumping-off point is a sympathetic but politically incorrect teacher who advocates for their academic discipline. It takes abstract ideas and puts them into the context of very human relationships. The only real disappointment is that for a play which centres around the critique of an over-simplified narrative there is no attempt to present its themes in anything other than the most conventional of structures. Virtually every cliché of a 'well-made' comedy is here – papers falling into the wrong hands, baddies rendered ridiculous, lovers uniting, and redemption emerging from chaos. If only the debate about climate change could be resolved as neatly as this. Still, it's a satisfyingly witty and thought-provoking production.