Review: The Heretic, Royal Court

“I’m trying to teach the importance of scepticism”

The Heretic, Richard Bean’s new play for the Royal Court, deals with the topic du jour taxing our playwrights, climate change, but takes a sharply comic take which provides a highly amusing evening and neatly sidesteps the gloominess which often permeates issue-driven theatre. Palaeogeophysics and geodynamics lecturer at York University, Dr Diane Cassell is treading a lonely path as a climate change sceptic, her findings are not convincing her that sea levels are indeed rising, which puts her in direct confrontation with her Greenpeace activist daughter and her department, as she publishes research and goes on (a highly amusingly filmed segment) Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman without permission, going against the wishes of her sponsor-hungry boss who just happens to be an old flame. One ray of sunshine for her is new student Ben who is receptive to her way of thinking and becomes her protégé whilst her world begins to crumble around her and death threats start to come in.

By focusing on fully-fleshed characters rather than the issue per se, The Heretic for an engaging evening which is particularly thought-provoking in the first half as Bean questions the way in which science and politics are often forced together despite being uneasy bedfellows and looks at so many of the factors which surround the climate change debate that interact in a multiplicity of conflicting ways – this is more fun than it sounds I promise. I did like the way too the way in which humour is brought into every scene, the environmentally conscious security guard switching the light off, the way in which Bean skewers the bureaucracy around universities and HR departments everywhere and there are some seriously cracking one-liners peppered liberally throughout the show.

The play is driven by a quartet of fantastic performances. It is such a pleasure to see Juliet Stevenson doing comedy, her deep dry tones are perfectly suited to the highly intelligent Doctor Cassell with her battery of withering put-downs and she of course plays both the encroaching fear for her safety and the unwavering love for her difficult daughter to perfection: Lydia Wilson bringing a nice bright-eyed charisma to her spiky yet sharply clever anorexic, so very much her mother’s daughter. James Fleet was great fun as her professor boss, unable to break free from the strictures of academic policy in reprimanding his wilful colleague despite sharing an intimate personal history with her which he is keen to pursue but Johnny Flynn was truly excellent as the awkward Earth Science student with his facade of lackadaisical and disaffected yoof which soon crumbles as he seeks intellectual stimulation from Cassell senior and a more physical stimulation from Cassell junior.

The Heretic made me laugh, a lot, and the performances are really top-notch. But the play itself seemed to lose its way a little bit for me in the second half as the tightly constructed debate of the first act gives way to a series of strands which pull against each other and leave very few of them dealt with in a satisfactorily manner. Like life, it gets messy and as in real life, there’s no real resolution possible to the issues around climate change that are raised: the quality of the first half raised my expectations though and resultantly didn’t feel quite as intelligent. But altogether it came across as an enjoyable night out: I have however had my fill of polar bears on the stage for 2011 now, thank you.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 19th March
Note: strobe lighting used

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