Kyoto review – 1997 protocol on climate crisis fuels gripping theatre at the RSC

<span>Darkly charming … Stephen Kunken (Don Pearlman) in Kyoto.</span><span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan</span>
Darkly charming … Stephen Kunken (Don Pearlman) in Kyoto.Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Key sections of the RSC’s latest world premiere feature characters arguing over whether a comma should be used instead of a full stop and if the sentence should then be enclosed within square brackets.

Kyoto by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, which dramatises the negotiation of the first international treaty on tackling climate change, in Japan in 1997, makes such verbal pedantry tense and gripping. It joins a subset of plays about high-stakes textual hesitation: Oslo by JT Rogers, which recreated the Israel-Palestine peace accord of the 1990s; David Edgar’s Written on the Heart, about the negotiations over the King James Bible; and Owen McCafferty’s Agreement, a dramatisation of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

In all these cases, alternative histories turn on choices of vocabulary or grammar. In Kyoto, as delegates discuss a sentence about sea level rises, Kiribati, a Pacific atoll, tries to change the US and Saudi Arabia wording of “would” to “could” but are countered by an alliance of Small Islands upping their bid to “will”.

Even ticket-buyers fully signed up to the science and politics may have slightly dreaded the theatrical equivalent of a three-hour Ted Talk by Greta Thunberg. But Kyoto makes the crucial bold decision to employ as narrator an extreme sceptic about the climate crisis: Don Pearlman, a Republican lawyer who attended the talks as surreptitious disruptor on behalf of the oil industry.

Any drama about the interplay of states bows to Shakespeare and the character has clear elements of Richard III and Iago, although scenes in the published text directly referencing Macbeth – the petroleum giants were once known as “the seven sisters” – have been cut.

As a darkly charming ringmaster, though, Pearlman most resembles Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Just as in that play we sometimes have to fight seduction by someone seeking to destroy a great composer, Pearlman’s speeches about economic consequences and the hypocrisies of flying round the world to save it from CO2 may wobble all but the firmest green lines.

Related: ‘We want the audience to feel there is hope’: how to write a play about the climate crisis, by the team behind The Jungle and Little Amal

It helps that Stephen Daldry, who co-directs with Justin Martin, has put Stranger Things than Kyoto on stage and this co-production with the company Good Chance combines narrative clarity with vivid visuals – Miriam Buether’s set is an oval conference table at which some audience members sit – and consistently grabby acting. Stephen Kunken’s Pearlman relishes the acting equivalent of selling roast beef at a vegan conference. He taunts the audience at the end of act one: “Interval drinks will be provided by BP.”

Raad Rawi as the Saudi Arabian delegate and Nancy Crane as the US’s searingly embody the complexities of realpolitik, as when she explains that President Clinton’s views are irrelevant; the Senate dictates any deal. Ferdy Roberts is very funny as the UK’s hungry and punchy representative, John Prescott, although this characterisation seems unfairly more buffoonish than the others.

As Oslo showed, diplomatic words can later be undone by political deeds and Kyoto could have a sequel, which I would happily see. But this play about the diplomatic consequences of commas deserves a string of exclamation marks.

• At the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 13 July