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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Heretic
Royal Court Theatre   February-March 2011

Unlike the quartet of writers who produced the National Theatre's Greenland, Richard Bean knows how to write a successful play about climate change - write a play about real people, who happen to be interested in climate change.

You will learn a lot from The Heretic, particularly about the ways politics, economics and other agendas impinge on science.

But on one level climate change is just what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin, the thing everyone is interested in, but not the essence of them as characters or of the play.

Had Bean chosen to write a play about population growth, nuclear disarmament or the Middle East, it might well have looked very much like this one, because the heart of his play is in the people and not the issue.

Juliet Stevenson plays (brilliantly, of course) a scientist whose study of sea levels doesn't show any rise, which makes her sceptical about other studies that do indicate climate change.

It also makes her unpopular at her university, which stands to lose lucrative consulting contracts if it's not on the bandwagon, and with environmental activists, who are sending her death threats.

In the course of the action, Stevenson's character will realise that her data is flawed, but also that someone on the other side has been falsifying his. But that's not where the play is.

The scientist has an adult daughter who is anorexic and violent, a once-and-possibly-future lover who is also her university boss, and a student who she senses is nowhere near as dim as he seems.

The play's heart, both in drama and comedy (and there are a lot of jokes and even more warm humour), is in the personal stories, the ways these four people will come together, bounce off each other, and find ways to muddle through life.

The discussions of science and politics enrich the play, but it could survive without them.

One of the warmest moments of the play comes as four people sit at separate laptops and toss arcane data back and forth, because the scene is not about what they're discovering but the way they're coming together and finding excitement in the unity.

Another has deadly enemies joining forces in a real life crisis, and yet another has the play happily pause for a moment while a tongue-tied lad finds a way to tell a girl his feelings.

Juliet Stevenson is the rare actress who can convey intelligence and hard determination and still let us see the warm human being beneath.

Lydia Wilson keeps the daughter from being just the collection of neurotic symptoms she might have been, James Fleet is a master at playing loveable dolts, and Johnny Flynn takes what could be a stock comic character and gradually lets us see that there is a brain and a good heart in there somewhere.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Heretic - Royal Court Theatre 2011

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