‘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

<span>Joe Murphy (left) and Joe Robertson: ‘We write with our backs to one another and our heads in the Google doc.’</span><span>Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer</span>
Joe Murphy (left) and Joe Robertson: ‘We write with our backs to one another and our heads in the Google doc.’Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The rehearsal room in London’s Bethnal Green has a concentrated, businesslike and anticipatory atmosphere. It is filled with people sitting at tables with microphones in front of them, as though a conference were about to begin, which, in a sense, it is. On the stage’s periphery are directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and the playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, co-founders of the Good Chance company, and I can see, even from a distance, how purposeful they all are. This is the same team that was responsible for The Jungle, the internationally celebrated show about the theatre the two Joes set up in Calais’s refugee camp. Now, they are halfway through rehearsals of a fascinating, meticulously researched and high-risk new project, Kyoto, about the UN’s climate conference of 1997.

The conference’s stated aim was to cut global greenhouse gases by 5% by 2012 and was the first building block in the introduction of climate legislation across the world, starting the process that led to the adoption of the Paris agreement in 2015, which included emissions pledges for all. The Kyoto protocol was signed, against seemingly impossible odds, by 84 countries and more than 100 more have since joined. Its effectiveness has been limited - the developed nations all met their targets (some with some judicious offsetting with other countries’ reductions), but global emissions have since soared. However, as the first summit at which the world’s nations started to come together, it has become an historic environmental landmark.

Good Chance’s project has (if the phrase can pass in context) been in the pipeline for a while and been taken on by Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey – like an exciting statement of intent – as part of their first season as joint artistic directors of the RSC.

At the centre of the drama is Don Pearlman, the morally ambiguous American lawyer and smooth operator who earned himself the tag “high priest of the carbon club”. Pearlman was never obliged to reveal who funded him, although the likelihood is that he was supported by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the big oil companies. A formidable spanner in the conference’s works, he is to be played by Tony-nominated Stephen Kunken – one of those actors who has you instantly in his thrall. In rehearsal, he stands on stage as relaxed and ready as a conductor who has nothing but contempt for his orchestra: cool in his stance, tweaking his bow tie, his sense of his own rightness laconically unassailable.

Pearlman is in patriotic cahoots with Nancy Crane, representing the US delegation, and I watch them, riveted by the throwaway casualness of their self-interested exchanges – a sinister flexing of shared power. Other countries in attendance are represented by an international cast, and the giant oil companies are reconfigured as “the seven sisters”, stirrers of trouble, intended to suggest the witches in Macbeth. In the front two rows of the theatre there will be space for audience members to sit, alternating with the actors playing delegates. Decisions about the climate crisis – the point could not be clearer – involve us all.

How can we find a common ground? Because we can keep arguing but… how do we move forward?

There are negotiations about negotiations in rehearsal before the lunch break is declared and I get to meet Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy over tea and sandwiches in a bright conference room of our own. In their early 30s, they are delightful company: engaged and engaging. It is extraordinary how seamlessly they pick up on each other’s thoughts, as if they were of one mind (it was sometimes hard to be sure, in retrospect, who had said what). They met at Oxford as English undergraduates and have been writing plays together for 15 years. But I tell them that what I have been puzzling over is: why Kyoto? How does going back in time contribute to thinking about the climate crisis now?

They were drawn to Kyoto, Robertson volunteers, partly because it was “the first time this consensus had happened and it was about asking: how do you turn round the juggernaut of the world – this huge oil tanker – from a total lack of consensus and lack of certainty in the science?” Murphy describes Kyoto as “a parable about agreement”. And they explain that, long before hitting upon their subject, they had been asking questions about the “scary” world in which we all live, and had begun to see how critical consensus was. The Jungle, they add, touched on this too – asking how people from different countries can live together: “How can we find a common ground? Because we can keep arguing but… how do we move forward?”

What, then, does agreement depend upon? “Human will, energy, force of character – the conviction there is a way forward together. But the even bigger question is: do we have what it takes to see the other side even when we might not like what we see?”

A play about a conference could be a dead weight but the text is entertainingly precise. The pedantry involved in negotiations is used to build tension in a way that is masterly – fiddling with language while the planet burns. And incredibly, the Joes have achieved this seamlessness jointly. Their affinity makes it easy to imagine a writing process as shared as their conversation: “We write with our backs to each other and our heads in the Google doc…”; “I can see where his mind is…”; “You begin to think about where that cursor hovers and what is going through that brain…”; “Sometimes you don’t have to speak out loud to understand what the other is thinking.”

They watched six hours of footage from the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) of the conference and admit they would have found it impenetrable had they not done months of research. But knowing the characters, it became “really exciting”. They talked to delegates, chief scientists and to Pearlman’s widow. But for them, the issue remained: “Can you take these rooms in which the great questions of our time are discussed and put them on stage?” The conundrum that has arisen in rehearsals is about Pearlman’s motivation. Did he not believe the climate science? Or did he think that the costs of taking action were too great?

Taking action is something Murphy and Robertson have not hesitated to do themselves. Looking back on their achievements with Good Chance, do they ever wonder at their sheer nerve in moving into the Calais camp? “We do sometimes look back at our 25-year-old selves and think: that was a bit mad… There are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t build a theatre in a refugee camp, such as the idea of being a white saviour… or another objection: what is your right even to go into this place when you can leave whenever you like?”

But today they are rejoicing because: “We keep going to incredible permanent citizenship ceremonies in the UK for some of our best friends who we met in Calais and we see how these incredible artists – we know they are because we were working with them – are growing. It is really moving.” They celebrate, too, the continuing travels of Little Amal, the giant animatronic refugee puppet (also a Good Chance production) who after her first walk through Europe, Robertson says, was recognised to have “a million more footsteps in her”.

But I say that we need now to return to the subject of Kyoto, if only to consider the ending, which is, in mid-rehearsal, still being fine-tuned. Robertson and Murphy praise the readiness of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin to re-examine and, where necessary, rethink. Daldry, they say, has “an amazing ability to make you feel better and more daring than you are. He does it for his actors too – you see it in the room every single day.”

Nothing in the show will be simplified for convenience. And it is likely to be a complicated watch because of Pearlman’s calculatedly ambiguous presence. The play seems, in part, to be an uncomfortable inquiry into the extent to which we have something of Pearlman in us: self-interest, willed blindness, determination to sustain an unsustainable way of life. But Robertson insists they are not peddling pessimism: “I want the audience to feel the euphoria that something is possible, that there is hope, that we can do this together.” Then they amend this by saying hope cannot be the only message given the reality of where we are. When I put it to them that the ending of their current draft is anything but hopeful and press them on whether they feel gloomy about the climate crisis themselves, they retreat behind “that’s a good question” – ambivalence their comfort zone.

Later, I go back to them to try to pin them down further about how they see the way forward and to ask what our governments should be doing. In its way, their reply is a mission statement: “We’re artists, not climate experts or policy-makers. But it seems to us that we have to change the weather, literally and metaphorically. How do we stop the defining question of our time being dragged into a wider culture war of disagreement that only benefits a small group of people? We have to conduct our discourse in a more compassionate and productive way, and make arguments that bold, innovative and immediate mitigation will not only prevent climate catastrophe but also create jobs and livelihoods for the future, strengthen our economies and ensure energy security in an increasingly dangerous world.”