Young jurors call adults to answer for the climate crisis in The Trials

In 2019, playwright Dawn King was booking flights to New York for a literary residency. It was the day of the UK’s first large-scale school strike for the climate, a movement launched by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. Checking her news feeds, King – who had intended to join the protests – realized she had forgotten. She shudders at the memory.

“I thought, ‘Wow, you think you’re so green, so liberal, but it’s not helping, is it? In the future, you will be judged as severely as everyone else. what are you really making?’”

So King did what he knows best: the script that emerged, mostly assembled in the early lockdowns of 2020, was The Trials, staged this month at London’s Donmar. The play imagines a world a few decades from now, where a group of people are on trial, Nuremberg-style, for their guilt in the climate crisis. How many flights did you take? Did they eat meat? Sure, they recycled, but so what? Penalties for exceeding personal carbon allowances are severe; the judges are played by teenagers who have inherited the mess. The defendants are clearly stand-ins for the rest of us, who played the violin while Rome (and many other places) burned.

The Trials is a “thought experiment,” explains King, but part of what makes this blame game chilling is that this is a nearer future than we want to think. In the play, the young jurors debate whether they can safely open a window because it’s so hot and polluted outside. Rehearsals began the day the UK Met Office issued its first red alert for extreme heat. On the afternoon of my visit, wildfires hit California once again, and hundreds of people in Germany and the Czech Republic are being evacuated. As extreme as the setting is, The Trials is hardly science fiction. “Look around,” King says with a shrug. “In some places we are already there.”

In a scene I watch being rehearsed, judges fantasize about what it would be like to fly in an airplane, a means of transport that was essentially banned. Assembling tables and chairs in the jury room to mock an airplane cabin, they talk about escaping ground-level horrors – floods, food shortages, refugee crises – and flying into “blue skies” like their parents and grandparents. did once. . A cold Coke and a bag of peanuts on board are luxuries impossible to imagine.

In another scene, somehow even sadder, they speculate what it would be like to find snow. The idea of ​​going on a ski vacation is mind boggling. “I’ve seen the video, but…”, says one of them.

King’s decision to employ a group of teenagers (the youngest is 12, the oldest is 18) gives the play an unbalanced and appealing energy. Yes, these kids are weighing the consequences of the climate crisis, but they also want to flirt, kiss, play – just live their lives. While the Donmar has hired some seasoned professionals — Joe Locke and William Gao, both stars of the Netflix series Heartstopper, appear — several of the cast were found through the theater’s “Local” scheme, which brings in schools and community groups from nearby neighborhoods. Around 1,400 young people were involved, around 200 of whom participated in intensive workshops at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

It felt important to do that, explains director Natalie Abrahami: “The theme of the play seemed to demand it, in some way. That sense of activism, engagement.”

What attracted Locke, now 18, to the project? Turns out he first read the script on a plane on his way to an acting job. He grimaces. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m the generation that should be making the change, but I’m also here, pumping carbon,” he says.

Does he share the characters’ anger over who is responsible? “I don’t necessarily think it’s anger at an individual generation,” he replies carefully. “It’s more like feeling underprivileged. It makes a lot of young people want to get involved in changing things.”

Francis Dourado, 15, who has been rehearsing around his GCSEs, is less diplomatic. “In the future, people in power [now], they won’t be there anymore,” he says quietly. “We will be left with a world that is already dying. Maybe it’s already too late to save him. I hope not, but…”

King has form when it comes to putting dystopias on stage. His standout piece was 2011’s Foxfinder, which captivated critics with its haunting portrayal of a rural community in which foxes are to blame for everything from bad harvests to contagion, like 17th-century witches, and must be eradicated at all costs. . His incisive 2015 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was followed by a collaboration with grime MC and rapper Skepta, Dystopia987, which attempted to present what the club scene of the future would look like.

Becci Gemmell and Kirsty Besterman in Foxfinder by Dawn King in Finborough, London in 2011. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Partly coincidental, she laughs: Write a successful dystopia and the producers think that’s all you can do. “But what I would say is that we are now living in a dystopia. We just went through a 40°C heat wave, wildfires are not just in Europe, but in Kent. How much more dystopian do you want to be?”

Courtroom dramas are nothing new, but when a German version of the play premiered in Düsseldorf last summer, some critics raised eyebrows at how the script pits generations against one another, with teenagers called upon to denounce people their own age. parents in ways that seem uncomfortably reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the US McCarthyist witch hunt.

Related: How to make a luxury show sustainable? Theater’s radical green agenda

Is the creative team worried that some people in the audience will feel attacked? Abrahami responds that The Trials are intended to provoke debate and, hopefully, action. “The play is an act, without intermission; the second half is the conversation you have with whoever you came to see the show. How does that change the way you think? What do you want to change in your own life?”

King says she’s being judged here as much as anyone else. “It’s not me pointing the finger at other people, definitely not.” She raises her hands. “From that point on, people always say to me, ‘Oh, did you fly? Didn’t you take the train? I’m putting myself here.”

Despite many attempts, theater has often struggled to communicate the immensity of the climate crisis or map out ways to resolve it. What makes this show different? “The play is activism; I wrote it to change things,” King responds, noting that the theater is collaborating with environmental arts charity Julie’s Bicycle to measure its impact and is employing the new Theater Green Book so that the set, props and other elements are reusable. ​or recyclable. This will be a roadmap for future Donmar shows.

Despite the bleakness she puts on stage, there’s hope in The Trials too, she adds. “There are elements of utopia. These young people are living in a world where the climate emergency is being taken very seriously. We need to hear this.” Locke agrees: “The play shows what the future might be, not what it will be. That’s an important distinction to make.”

When I ask if he thinks people will really change the way they live, Dorado looks serious, looking much older than his age. “I think they will change because now, more than ever, we see everything happening so fast around us. A lot of people are starting to wake up and realize.” How about Locke? “You have to stay optimistic because otherwise you can’t change anything.

Abrahami is nodding. “I’m kind of a hope addict,” she says with a smile. “You have to be, don’t you?”

• The Trials is at Donmar Warehouse, London, August 12-27. A new ticket allocation is released every day at 10am.

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