A couple of months ago a friend invited me to join the Development Council of a fantastic West London institution that is The Bush Theatre. At that point I had not been to the theatre for almost one year, having been entirely consumed by political journalism into which I was dragged into by the burning need to write about the war in my country, which then led me to other topics like energy wars or media bias and propaganda. In fact, since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict I have hardly watched or read any fiction at all, as it felt quite pale and irrelevant in comparison to what was going on in the world. So my initial reaction to the invitation was to accept out of respect for my past love for the Bush, but I didn’t have big expectations, knowing nothing about the play, only that it has a catchy title with the F-word in it – F*ck the Polar Bears.
I believe we are often late for things we are not sure of or have an internal conflict about. I was late for the evening, even though I did catch the second half of an enthusiastic introduction speech. Read-throughs are always slightly patchy experiences, as the actors are unfamiliar with the material and the writer still hasn’t polished the play. So I eased in for an hour or so of light under-rehearsed entertainment, which I expected would not move me much. I don’t know why I was so presumptuous, perhaps I’ve been too moved by the events in the real world to care much about anything in fiction. However, against my biased negative expectations, within the first fifteen minutes I started becoming quite hooked.
Basically the play was about a dysfunctional couple – an executive husband, who’s just received a promotion but is having a psychotic episode and a stay-at-home neurotic mother, who’s lost her identity and tries to re-invent herself as a yoga-pilates teacher. Both are trying to get the house of their dreams and to find their daughter’s lost polar bear toy, while dealing with a series of disasters in their current home, a recovering drug addict relative and an environmentally-consious nanny from Iceland, whose activism involves making sure recycling is put into the right bin and the tumble dryer is not used unnecessarily.
The play immediately struck me as extremely well-observed, tightly written, funny and touching. However, most importantly, it was about the issue which I have delved into during the last year and which I consider one of the most important concerns of our day – fracking. (Fracking is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside.)
More specifically, the play was about an energy law, conveniently hidden within the Infrastructure Bill, which was implemented by the UK coalition government on 12th February 2015 and which essentially makes it easier for oil and gas companies to drill under private land. As Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas said, the way the law was drafted ‘made mockery of public concerns about fracking and the democratic process.’
Aside from undermining democracy, the Fracking Bill puts British citizens’ health at risk, it carries the following risks:
• Extra CO2 Emissions: Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.
• High Water Usage: It takes 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracturing job.
• Many Chemicals Used: The water brought in is mixed with sand and chemicals to create fracking fluid.Approximately 40,000 gallons of 600 chemicals are used per fracturing, amongst which are known carcinogens:
• Dangerous Carcinogens: lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde.
• Water Contamination: During the shale fracturing, methane gas and toxic chemicals leak out from the system and contaminate nearby groundwater. (Methane concentrations are 17 x higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells.)
• Health Risks: Contaminated well water is used for drinking water for nearby cities and towns. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.
• Left Behind: Only 30-50% of the fracturing fluid is recovered, the rest of the toxic fluid is left in the ground and is not biodegradable.
• Atmosphere pollution: The waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.
• Summary: In the end, hydraulic fracking produces approximately300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, but at the cost of numerous environmental, safety, and health hazards.
The play itself doesn’t go into so much technical detail, as Tanya Ronder wanted to do something different from what Katie Mitchell did in 2017 at the Royal Court, which was “literally a scientist on stage giving a lecture about it”, but F*ck the Polar Bears has moments, which give a perfect summary of why the dangers of fracking are ignored both by the government and the media:
“SERENA: I take it this law is bad for global warming?
SERENA: Why’s the Government doing it?
GORDON: Money. Shale’s abundant and from British soil… And all their pensions are invested in fossil fuels.
SERENA: Bludndhilde might tell the papers.
GORDON: Well, it’s their pensions too.”
By the end of the play my faith in theatre had been reinvigorated and I totally loved the writer and so when during the post-show drinks the Artistic Director Madani Younis introduced me to the playwright Tanya Ronder, I was instantly drawn to talking with her. Aside from covering the usual female topics such as child rearing and the struggles of parents who are writers or actors, Tanya shared with me her inspirations for writing this play and her process.
First of all, as any normal human would, Tanya considers global warming to be THE issue that our world faces today. However, being a playwright, she didn’t just write a journalistic account of the issue, she needed to put into into the context of human relationships and drama.
She got inspiration for setting it inside the household of one of the gas executives involved in implementing the bill, when she saw a photograph of one of them in a paper, alongside the information on his bonus for that year. As soon as she became conscious of anger and bile rising in her, she decided to challenge herself to go inside his mind, to understand his concerns and ambitions. All in the context that we can relate to – home.
Even though Gordon’s house is more luxurious than majority of other people’s, his emotional drives are familiar to all – wanting to provide a cosy beautiful home for his family, just at a more exaggerated level than most would hope for – with a personal jetty to the river. Humanising people, who are responsible for ruining our future is no small task, but Tanya does it in a believable way, creating a balance between being repelled by and sympathetic towards these people, who are in charge of making these dangerous for the planet decision, but who are still human nonetheless.
Tanya’s main information sources for writing the play were Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ and George Monbiot’s ‘The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us’, and Tanya thoroughly recommends to read both of these. However, she also did a series of interviews, including one with the British Gas official who told her he had never met a climate change denier in his 15 years of working for the company. This was a surprise, as one would assume that these people would not do what they are doing, if they knew the consequences of their actions. Thus, Tanya reveals the destructive side of human nature – we will carry on doing things, even when we know them to be bad for us.
It is difficult to relay all the interesting information that Tanya has shared with me, but the best thing I would recommend is to go and see the play itself, which is at the Bush Theatre until 24th October. I’ve been to see it three times since then, each time bringing friends along.
The acting is just as excellent as the writing: the leading actress Susan Staley was in LAMDA at the same time as me – she was great back then, but she is brilliant now. Andrew Whipp playing the gas devil is utterly captivating during his breakdown, Jon Foster playing Clarence is a beam of light and humour and Icelandic Salome R Gunnarsdottir is quirky and likeable. The set is equally impressive – sleek and sexy living room with a rotating environentally-sustainable wood platform, all resting on black laquer floor that looks like oil.
It’s one of these plays, which will definitely stay with you. The last three friends I brought along, couldn’t leave their seats, as they were so struck by what they had seen. (So it’s not just me and my interest in the fracking issue).
Finally, as with all people I find interesting and admirable, I can’t stop talking to Tanya, who kindly answered my more specific questions about the play via email. I’m re-printing her words below, which I hope you will find as relevant and poignant as I do.
Please explain your thinking behind Gordon’s mental breakdown.
Part of the thinking behind Gordon and his psychosis was the belief that people do not get away with it on a personal level. Of course, the baddies largely run the world, but I mean in the way you can see in that extraordinary documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING, where the horrific, violent past of the protagonist lives on in him. Haunts him.
Another stimulus was the River God in SPIRITED AWAY – so filled with detritus that he was unrecognizable as a god. Until the river of rubbish poured out of him and revealed his true nature.
There was also a link between our actions and our environment that I was trying to explore. When we are tense, our physical surrounding responds; things go wrong, disappear, fuck up, always at the height of our crisis. Building on this, I liked to play with the belief that the world fights back, will not let us get away with it cost-free.
What about deciding to make Gordon’s brother Clarence a drug addict and a drop out?
As somebody who is following the 12 step programme, Clarence is taking account of his actions, trying, in an ongoing way, to make amends for the damage he caused. For me, we should all be doing this for our destructive footprint on the world.
Has writing this play changed your own consciousness in relation to any of the issues explored in the play?
I think the biggest lesson in the research for me was understanding that we cannot move forwards on these issues until we stop putting making more & more money as our priority.
What do you hope the audience would take from your play?
I hope that people might come away thinking more about what they can personally do, i.e. see that we are each the adult – beyond a certain age, none of us are children – and as adults, we make decisions for the greater good, not for the gratification of our personal greed. It’s hard to be adult. I hope audiences might perhaps feel their adulthood more acutely.
What, in your personal opinion, is the role of the playwright in society?
I don’t know about the role of the playwright. I’ve felt small and inadequate in trying to say what I believe in this tiny arena & don’t, in all honesty, feel optimistic about what I’ve acheived. I think Naomi Klein and the Pope are doing better :) I am reviewing what I feel I can acheive through writing plays. I’m going to try writing for TV for a while to see if that feels more potent. Or not. I will report back!