SUBTITLED Time to Change the Temperature, Riding Lights’ Baked Alaska, a robust and delicious satire on climate change pulls no punches about the urgency of the environmental crisis or personal responsibility to reconsider our way of life.
Written by Paul Burbidge (who also directs) and Jonathan Bidgood, the show was commissioned by the diocese of Lichfield, Christian Aid, and Operation Noah, and had its première at the conference “Reconciling a Wounded Planet”, in Coventry Cathedral (News, 25 September).
Sean Cavanagh’s ingenious and versatile touring set has a giant dinner plate of a stage depicting the planet as seen from space. It’s built on a creaking hydraulic mechanism that can tilt it to precarious angles, and aptly — given the vulnerability of the earth — the characters are sometimes clinging on for dear life as they lie on their stomachs and look out across the galaxy.
This is pure Riding Lights: funny, colourful, biting, gleefully stuffed with cameo roles for the four actors, Bidgood himself, Katie Brier, Edith Kirkwood, and Ivan Scoble. Weather forecasts predict “scattered intervals of economic awareness”; there’s cheerful acknowledgement that “some islands inhabited by foreign people will go under the sea”; travellers abroad take out Emotional Health insurance against exposure to poverty and climate deprivation; neighbours dump garbage unlimited into next door’s garden, and Paradise Island becomes a disposable country — “Shame about the tree line, rip it up, tear it up. . .”
A penguin basks, liberally applying the sun cream. Marketing men from a company opening up the Arctic for oil exploration package it in terms of a moral duty to shareholders and “the industry that powers the energy of the world’s successful companies”. Persistent puppets ask the questions that only children can ask; science is palatably explained, and consumerist issues are raised and reflected on: can a new kitchen be justified on the grounds of shabbiness, for example?
The visit of “Eve” to Bangladesh after the cyclone of 2009 sobers it up. The whole thing gets angrier. The rape of the land in Niger Delta is portrayed in the simulated rape of a woman, a whirling agony of streaming black silk. There’s a visit to the future, hinting at resource wars and mass migration. There’s a Christian figure who speaks in parables. But the message is that it doesn’t have to be like this; it doesn’t have to end in calamity.
I do take issue with what happens at the end. The play, though over-long, is so powerful that it leaves you with images burned on the mind, and with much to go away and think about. You couldn’t feel passive about the issues after watching this. It doesn’t need the actors’ stepping out of role to acknowledge their own culpability and to prompt us to action. Hand us a flyer, by all means, with all those useful suggestions about writing to our MPs in the run-up to the UN conference on climate change in December, but please let artistic integrity have the last word. The play’s the thing.
Baked Alaska is touring nationally until 28 November. Tour schedule and booking details at: www.ridinglights.org/baked-alaska.