As I walked through the exit doors of Theatre Royal Stratford East, two immediate thoughts struck me. First, a growing feeling of being overwhelmed (in a good way) by something I thought I knew but hadn’t fully grasped until just then. Second, a feeling of (self-conscious) irony that washed over me as I looked around for a recyclable bin to dispose of my complimentary-press-night beverage can. Unable to find one, I settled for a general use bin instead (I know, I know) and made my way home. Through this brief and exceedingly casual act that many of us probably undertake everyday without much thought, I was confronted by the central argument the show represents – human indifference in the face of a global extinction crisis.
Extinct is a deeply gripping, hauntingly vivid call for action against the systemic degradation of the Earth. Written by April De Angelis and performed by Kiran Landa, this dazzling production gives us a glimpse into a woman’s personal nightmare about our perilous future with gut-wrenching statistics, looming not-so-hypothetical disaster scenarios and hard-hitting testimonies from real-life environmental activists. The latter half of the previous sentence may make you think you’re walking into yet another climate change seminar but it’s so much more than that. Using a multitude of visual storytelling techniques – direct audience address, live camera, video design, green screen, projections, physical theatre and more – director and dramaturg Kirsty Housley cleverly draws your attention towards the mounting evidence the playwright has gathered.
The show begins with an anecdotal account of a food shortage crisis in the near future by the text’s titular character, an unnamed woman who swears not to get too emotional about climate change, whom we later discover is the playwright addressing us in first person. This self-awareness is a powerful element of Angelis’ text, as the anguish and helplessness towards the worsening climate situation comes through with honesty. The character then proceeds with a simple promise to the audience – to take them on a journey and bring them back safely. What follows next is a whirlwind of vignettes that are partly self-referential to the character’s life in modern-day London and larger climate change discourse in the UK as well as a parallel storyline of a British Asian journalist covering the rapidly declining landscape of Kara Mura in the south of Bangladesh. There’s not a single moment in the show’s 80-minute running length that lets you look away – the story is urgent, gripping and wonderfully crafted. Equal credits go to Landa whose performance is breath-taking and endearing, reeling you in with a precision that the subject matter deserves. Relying on the minimal but infinitely resourceful set designed by Peter McKintosh, Landa’s energy and presence shifts in tandem with the action’s pace. Housley’s direction is particularly effective in incorporating specific scenographic elements in the performer’s action, such as when Landa dips into a bathtub filled with water only to appear a few seconds later, drenched as her character in the aftermath of a raging rainstorm.
One of the show’s biggest strength is its clever use of technology to reimagine information like climate change statistics that may usually bore the skeptic in the audience – especially the use of a live aerial camera to capture a birds-eye view of the performer whilst the stage floor is replaced by visuals of melting ice-caps. Nina Dunn’s video design uses eye-catching visual infographics and typography to represent the data whilst Melanie Wilson’s sound design effortlessly transitions between the character’s spoken voice and recorded testimonies from activists, both of which are underscored by subtle musical notes that match the tension of the text. Joshua Pharo’s contained light design complements the heavy use of media, technology and camera with swift shifts to highlight different parts of the stage and the story.
To summarize, Extinct is a powerful call for collective action towards combating climate change. It raises deeply troubling questions about our present way of living and how our apathetic, indifferent approach to a very real crisis threatens our very future.
You can watch Extinct at the Theatre Royal Stratford East E15 1BN in-person till 17th July, with an online version available from 13th to 18th July. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/extinct
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 2nd July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★