A Review of ‘Kyoto’ at The Swan Theatre, Stratford

JRI founder Sir John Houghton is a named character in this insightful portrayal of the build-up to, and dramatic turning point at COP 3 in December 1997, the eponymous Kyoto Protocol. It wasn’t the reason I attended, the characters and cast list being unknown until I opened my programme, but it provided an extra area of interest to a play I had seen reviewed in the national press and wanted to catch during its very short run.

The play is in two parts: the first being the period 1990–1997, and the second being the Kyoto conference itself, with a short epilogue on ‘what happened next’ focusing on the lead character for the play, Don Pearlman. The play begins with shady characters representing the ‘Seven Sisters’ oil companies recruiting Washington lawyer Pearlman to use his skills as a master strategist to block, delay and obfuscate every international attempt to cooperate, ameliorate, or even define on matters of climate change. John Houghton appears in this early part of the play, a cardigan-wearing ‘science-nerd’ getting passionate about the need to act and act now as the science becomes clear about the impact climate change will have on people and the planet. Pearlman and his ilk sneer and ridicule, with John storming from the stage in frustration. It is pure theatre of course but it sets the scene well. Although the John Houghton portrayed bears no resemblance to the man so many at JRI knew, it is of immense credit to him that in a play with few characters, and very few named protagonists, John Houghton was the climate scientist selected by the writers to take such a defining role.

Pearlman acts as the focal point for the narrative and action throughout, and whilst the writers do not hide their disapproval for the political ‘dark arts’ he employs, the man himself is treated as fully human and no monster. There is even some pathos at the end when post-Kyoto he fights on but with growing awareness that his hope in a ‘US solution’ is unfounded, mirrored in his personal collapse as he fails to battle the smoking-induced cancer for which earlier in the play he is convinced the US will find a solution so that smoking is not the killer the science clearly evidences.

This is a small venue play so the audience feel involved in the drama, literally so for those in the front row who sit alongside the actors and are called upon to take part from time to time. Every member of the audience is also given a delegates badge upon entering the auditorium, and this also has a powerful effect. Mine was a delegate for ‘Samoa’ so when the Kiribati representative in the play makes impassioned pleas for the low-lying islands of the world and Samoa is mentioned in the list of delegates supportive of her cries for the recognition of existential threats, I could not help but recognise that this was a personal call to ‘love my neighbour’. I am not an observer, I am required to be an active participant. Towards the end there is a direct challenge to every person present in the words of Pearlman’s widow along the lines of, “If you filled up your car with gas or took a plane since you knew about climate change then you have helped fund the oil and gas lobbyists like Pearlman.” Ouch.

There is a point in the play when the delegates are discussing the wording of a particular clause. In a cacophony of voices calling across to one another in their own languages it is the punctuation which remains in English throughout: comma, brackets, ellipsis, full stop, speech marks are shouted out with increasing force and venom. This was a powerful device for highlighting how much energy and time is taken up with trivia in these matters. There is some discomfort in the recognition that these strategies for moving us away from consensus towards deeper division and disagreement are not only present on the global stage, they are present in our politics, in our communities, in our churches.

It is with much skill that the playwriters move us to recognise the other political skills that are deployed to achieve consensus and accord. The introduction of John Prescott to the stage at Kyoto – in my mind bizarrely played by the same actor who plays John Houghton – is met with some knowing amusement by the majority of the audience, most of whom are British and of a certain age. Similarly Raul Estrada-Oyuela, the Argentinian lawyer turned diplomat who was the Chair for COP3, is initially portrayed as a likeable buffoon.

In very short but specific scenes, mostly interactions between these characters and Pearlman, the simplicity of a genial approach seeking common ground exposes the brutality of the ‘dark arts’ approach. As Pearlman declares of his own methods, “This isn’t negotiation, it’s hand to hand combat”. The encouragement of the delegates by Estrada and Prescott to seek what will be generally good for all may lack specific detail but it acknowledges our shared humanity as a starting point. It also presents a call to selflessness and cooperation, even if the presented reward appeals to the delegates’ vanity: being known in the future for a protocol that achieved something rather than lost to posterity as another attempt that failed. They are politicians after all.

There is no overt faith aspect to this play. It is foul-mouthed throughout and does little to allay preconceptions and fears about lobbyists, superpowers both national and commercial, and the role of lawyers and politicians with their more local concerns of popularity and influence. However there is one point when even Pearlman is forced to admit that humans have a responsibility to care for the planet and all its inhabitants, and the future for our nearest and dearest will be affected by the decisions and choices we each make day by day. It is a private moment, when Pearlman and Estrada symbolically move toward one another, and not one Pearlman is willing to see repeated in the public arena.

I felt some pride of connection that John Houghton is given a key role in the story. I came away with much hope that the shared faith in a loving Creator God and redemption of the whole world through Jesus Christ can have an impact as Christians engage with the issues of the world, as John’s life and work bore witness. Our actions as well as our words are needed.

Karen Vincent

JRI Administration and Technical Support

‘Kyoto’ by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson is a co-production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Good Chance Theatre, running at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon until 13th July 2024. The performance viewed was being filmed so it may be available elsewhere in future.

Link to the RSC Publicity and Booking page:

https://www.rsc.org.uk/kyoto

Links to a few reviews of this production:

https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/kyoto-review-by-joe-murphy-joe-robertson-royal-shakespeare-company-and-good-chance-directed-stephen-daldry-justin-martin

https://www.whatsonstage.com/news/kyoto-review-sheer-theatrical-magic-in-the-rscs-swan-theatre_1609415

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/article/2024/jun/26/kyoto-review-swan-theatre-stratford-upon-avon-stephen-kunken