A participatory play about climate change, Whale is desperately sad, says Robert Reid
Beware, here there be spoilers.
Fleur Kilpatrick’s Whale, now on at the Northcote Town Hall, is an overwhelming demonstration of post-modern-self referentiality. The conceit of the work is that, guided by our host Sonya (Sonya Suares), the audience has gathered together to save the world from climate change with participatory theatre.
It seems like very few people to affect such urgent change.
We are greeted at a registration desk, where we’re asked a few preparatory questions. On a scale of one to 10, how urgent do we believe the need for action on the climate crisis is? 10. On the same scale, how comfortable are we with audience participation? Eight. (Not a 10? Well, no, not really; I haven’t slept well and I’ve come directly from rehearsal, so I’m not totally in the mood; but it makes me feel more comfortable having been asked.) Based on my answers, I’m given a lanyard with a number and a small rock in it. The number stands for the population on the island I represent. My island is small and only holds two people, an old couple who have chosen live in isolation from the rest of the world… sounds about right.
As we enter the space we are given party hats and streamers to hold until called for. We’re all too eager as an audience, donning our hats before the party even starts. The stalls are filled with colourful conical hats, briefly making me think of a class full of dunces. Sonya welcomes us to the space and tells us to take our hats off until we’re told to put them back on. A table to the side of the space has chips and soft drink ready to be distributed later. The muted atmosphere of a maudlin childrens’ birthday party settles in the space.
Sonya introduces herself as an actor, making a point to tell us that she studied acting at WAAPA, and explains how the evening will proceed. A terrible climate crisis threatens us all and we are here to solve it by deciding which of us will be sacrificed to save the whole. Three audience members are chosen by random draw from numbers which correspond to the those on our lanyards. Sonya too wears a lanyard with a number, 25 million, so she stands for Australia. She tells us she won’t be voting because someone must remain impartial. Typical Australian attitude: don’t blame me, I didn’t do it.
I can’t help wondering how random it is, as the rest of the night’s text is very specific to the details of these islands, though the distribution of numbers at the registration desk is perhaps random enough.
Our host is at pains to point out that none of this is real. The concepts to be explored will be difficult and dark and so we are encouraged to remember, it if all becomes too much, that it’s just a play. As if to underline this unreality, Sarah Walker is also on stage, taking photos of the performance which appear on a screen at the back of the stage. A simulated stock ticker runs a message repeatedly across a screen at the back of the space, reassuring us that “this isn’t really happening, this is just a play.” It’s an uncomfortable reassurance, as every time I see or hear it I can’t help but be reminded that, yes, all this is actually happening. The only thing that is truly unreal is the notion that anything we accomplish here together will have any effect whatsoever.
The three selected audience members stand for islands of varying sizes: one with a large population, more than 8000, another with a smaller population of less than one hundred. The last has zero people but is home to a unique species of penguin only found on the island. Each volunteer is asked to present the case for their island, reading out prepared statements about why we should vote to sacrifice one of the others. The rising sea waters will claim one of the islands and there is nothing we can do to stop this, but we can choose which it will be.
It’s not really clear why the sacrifice of one of these islands will be the solution to climate change, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The metaphor is clear enough: we can’t save everyone. For some to survive, others will have to perish.
This is how the participation aspect works. It’s almost entirely an on-rails experience in which we are warm props for the action of the play. We’re led by Sonya, fed lines to repeat back. It’s more a ritual than a game, playful but strict. It’s a modern form of lehrstücke, Brecht’s learning plays, which are built on the premise that we learn more through participation than observation.
After hearing the arguments, the audience is instructed to line up and cast our vote. The most populous island is chosen by a wide margin, condemning 8000 plus fictional people to a watery grave. I wonder what has happened on other nights. I make a point to look right into the eyes of the island’s representative as I cast my vote. Can I meet the gaze of the real human in front of me as I add my voice to the call for their doom?
I feel no guilt. Logic tells me to sacrifice the island of penguins where no humans live, but vengeance works in my heart and I say, fuck those imaginary 8000 people.
It becomes obvious that I’m really not alone. Behind me as the count is tallied, two people comment that it’s telling how many have chosen to punish the most humans. Even more chillingly, another person repeats, humans have got to go, yeah, humans have got to go.
The island is played by audience member Natasha, on our night. As her island sinks she’s directed to stand in a fading blue light as noise builds and “blinders” flash into the eyes of the audience. The heat from the lights is strong on our faces. Once the deed is done, Sonya tells us to put our hats back on and throw our streamers to celebrate this defeat of climate change. The victory feels pyrrhic: our input is only conditional and we have no real agency other than to choose one or the other to sacrifice. As is to be expected with any experience that corrals its participants towards a forgone conclusion, our sense of ownership or responsibility for the outcome is, at best, performative.
As audience members “celebrate,” and some are directed to hand out the party food, Sonya is not coping so well. She asks the audience to tell her how happy we are that we’ve ended climate change, still giving us the answers she wants to hear. It’s not working. She’s beginning to have a panic attack. She thrusts her mic into my face and asks me to tell her what’s special about my island. The lack of people is what I feel, I’m not a fan, but I offer instead the old couple who are the only residents on my island. She seems touched. She’s beginning to hyperventilate. She tells me to tell her that she’s having a panic attack. I do. She does.
In the midst of this, through Sonya’s panic and Walker’s attempts to help her through it and calm her down, there appears the Whale (Chanella Macri). The Whale is excellent. She introduces herself (yeah, I’m a Whale), asks us for questions and answers them matter-of-factly. She’s curious about humans. Under the water, with the drowned Natasha, they talk together. Whale asks Natasha questions and she answers, sometimes reading from a screen placed behind the audience, sometimes free to give her own answers. Natasha is quite good, too. She does well offering her own answers, fumbling to explain toast to Whale. Toast, she says, is bread, which is like wheat but crispy.
Hanging behind them now is a great net of plastic bottles strung together, dredged from the ocean. Light shines down through them, spilling haunting blues and whites around Whale and Natasha. It’s quite beautiful and deeply mournful at the same time. The net of bottles drapes over the screen which no longer shows Walker’s pictures – she’s stopped taking them in order to manage the deteriorating Sonya – and so the screen instead shows us the inner thoughts of Whale.
There’s a lot of techy schtick in the production, and I wonder how necessary some of it is: it detracts from the clarity of the work a little. At times I’m caught between watching and reading, and I’m not always sure of the relationship between the screen and the performance. Sometimes the thoughts seem to be obviously of the Whale, while at others the thoughts are attributed to “Jonah”. I’m not sure if Jonah is the Whale’s name or if Jonah is symbolic of Natasha, now surviving underwater in the belly of the Whale.
Whale struggles to understand the humans in the theatre with her. She observes but can’t understand the way boats migrate above her, how they care for the little boats, why people lean over the side of boats to say how the vastness of the ocean “makes you feel really small”. To bring Natasha back to dry land, Whale beaches herself on one of our islands. The humans of the island do what we do for beached whales, keeping her wet until the tide comes to carry her back out to the ocean. But, as whales do, she returns the following day, collapsing under her own weight. She died, leaving a toxic corpse that has soaked so much poison from the ocean into her blubber that the humans have to wear hazmat suits to touch her, and dispose of her carcass like nuclear waste.
I feel the loss of Whale way more strongly than the loss of the 8000 people on the island. Whale, who doesn’t understand the migration patterns of boats or the way they care for their young. I liked Whale. Meanwhile Walker and Sonya escape to higher ground in a cherry picker.
Is this show entirely successful? I’m not sure. It feels partial, in the same way that our response to climate change is partial. Before she dies, Whale tells us that our capacity as humans to want to make things better is really big. She asks us if we feel big. Four or five people answer, but no one says “yes”. Everyone feels small. I feel small.
In the end, Kilpatrick’s text explains that no, of course we haven’t stopped climate change. In a text message sent to and read out by a random-ish audience member, Kilpatrick tells us that climate change resists traditional narrative structures, strongly recalling Brecht’s assertion that “Petroleum resists the five act form”. Climate change, Kilpatrick tells us, has no solution in the now and can only find resolution in the imagined futures of the other plays.
Whale is a desperately sad work. Confused, angry and sad: which is maybe the only sane response to the climate emergency we have brought upon ourselves. Kilpatrick is a fine playwright with a gift for the poetic, but it feels as if climate change catches in her throat. The enormity of the problem chokes her; it chokes the stage as it is choking the world. Whale is the result.
At the end I’m left feeling like it teaches us that there’s nothing we can do, that our choices have all been made for us. The best we can do is to parrot responses that act more as a panacea than a cure. No matter what sacrifice we make, the world won’t be, can’t be, saved.
Whale, by Fleur Kilpatrick. At The Northcote Town Hall. Directed by Katrina Cornwell. Produced by Claire Portek. Dramaturgy by Roslyn Oades. Composer and sound design by Raya Slavin. Set and costume design by Emily Collett. Lighting design by Lisa Mibus. AV design by Sarah Walker. Performed by Chanella Macri, Sonya Suares and Sarah Walker. Northcote Town Hall, Darebin Arts Speakeasy. Until May 11. Bookings
Strobe lighting effects, Haze smoke effects, loud sounds, Mild Language and themes pertaining to the climate emergency. This is participatory theatre. You may be asked to come onto stage, say text or perform actions.
Wheelchair accessible, Companion Cards, Hearing system
Auslan Interpreted Performance: Thursday May 9
Relaxed Performance Saturday: 2pm, May 11