Beyond belief

By Dionne Christian

The Heretic centres on a scientist who doesn't believe in climate change, much like its playwright, Richard Bean. Dionne Christian reports...

Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Stelios Yiakmis star in The Heretic. Photo / Natalie Slade
Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Stelios Yiakmis star in The Heretic. Photo / Natalie Slade

In the religious wars of the past, heretics were burned at the stake. In today's secular conflicts, if you challenge prevailing orthodoxy you can be flayed on global social media so it takes a brave soul to argue that climate change is not happening.

British playwright Richard Bean, whose The Heretic, written in 2010, opens in Auckland tonight, reckons climate change science is junk, the findings alarmist, data frequently tortured into submission and the mainstream media not in a position to confront the complexity of the issue and question whether it's really happening.

The former occupational psychologist, who had a global hit with One Man, Two Guvnors, declares we're living in an age of "catastrophilia" and that we actively enjoy fretting over the future.

"The absence of religion has empowered the green lobby and created a form of idiocy," he says.

Strong words. So is 57-year-old Bean a modern-day heretic for daring to deny global warming and write a comic play about it?

No, he says, he is a free-thinking individual who believes in the importance of debate, discussion and questioning the powers-that-be, whether they be governments or leaders of environmental movements. "Orthodoxy closes off thinking and if you can't express an opinion or question an idea, well, Galileo is the perfect example of what happens.

"He declared that not everything revolves around the Earth and paid the price for his beliefs [he was tried by the Inquisition as a heretic, threatened with torture, was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest] while human thinking and endeavour were held back."

But don't make the mistake of thinking The Heretic, in which Bean lays out his thesis that concern about global warming has become a quasi-religion, is an earnest piece that requires its audience to have a PhD in environmental science.

It's a comedy, which is just as well, given that Bean needs all the weapons in a playwright's armoury to win over theatre audiences who tend to err on the more liberal side of life and are, therefore, more likely to take umbrage with his stance. British audiences and critics loved The Heretic, which won the 2011 Evening Standard award for best play.

Alison Quigan, who is directing the Auckland Theatre Company version, says there has been a lot of laughter in rehearsals followed by guilty looks from cast and crew who, like most of us, are uncertain what to believe and whether this is the type of thing we ought to be chortling about.

The heretic of the play's title is Dr Dianne Cassell (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) who argues, based on her research findings, that the case for climate change is by no means certain and scientists need to take a more nuanced view.

But that is getting her branded as a global warming antichrist.

She is receiving death threats and is at odds with her anorexic teenage daughter (Jess Holly Bates).

To make matters worse, she is in hot water after defying an order from her faculty head - and former lover - Professor Keven Maloney (Stelios Yiakmis) not to publish her research findings.

Yiakmis, making a return to the stage after more years than he cares to remember, says the play deals with the politics of science and academia, and the complexity and insecurity of modern working life, while keeping relationships and people at its centre. "It's a high piece of entertainment first and foremost with all sorts of comic devices," he says.

"Everyone wants to tell a doom and gloom story [about climate change] but the play makes its points intelligently and is provocative without making anyone feel like they've been at a lecture. No one is going to leave feeling as if they didn't really understand it."

Bean came to playwriting later in life than many and thinks that's not a bad thing because it gave him life experience to draw upon as well as giving him more courage to stand by his convictions. He was 42 when he quit his job as an occupational psychologist - he has a Bachelor of Science degree from Loughborough University - and moved into a squat so he wouldn't have to pay rent or a mortgage while he concentrated on writing.

It wasn't entirely a leap into the unknown because Bean had worked as a stand-up comedian since 1989 and wrote and performed on the BBC Radio sketch show Control Group Six as well as having had his first full-length play performed at the Edinburgh Festival and adapted for radio.

Joining a development programme at the Royal Court Theatre in 1999, his play Toast, based on his youthful experiences working in a bread factory in Hull, was a hit.

"I think I was the only one who wasn't an ex-trawler man or who hadn't been in prison.

"To stand on the night shift and listen to a middle-aged man talk about prison is quite something, great research for playwriting.

"I recall that one of the lads finished a shift, then went and robbed a bank."

Since then Bean has written at least one play a year and says writing about things that make him angry has proved to be a good starting point. As the father of a 3-month-old daughter, he says the pressure on women to breastfeed is what's making him angry right now.

"Imagine the headlines: Richard Bean writes a play about breastfeeding."

He likes to confound expectations, and gives the example of Punch and Judy as a model for writing a play about domestic violence.

"If the Punch character is the traditional bad guy that's boring. But if Punch is charming, sexy and witty then you have a much more interesting play. Doesn't that make us question our assumptions and beliefs a little more if we're thinking, 'do I like this person?"'

Until he watched former United States Vice-president Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, Bean was a Green voter who believed in climate change but he says the film made him uncomfortable.

He started to question the data and arguments and read avidly about climate change. Commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre to write a play about global warming, he decided to take a less reverent look at the subject.

Several years on, he remains "obsessed" with the subject.

Performance

What: The Heretic
Where and when: Maidment Theatre, July 20 - August 10

- NZ Herald

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