Robert Reid reviews Kill Climate Deniers at the Festival of Live Art
David Finnigan seems the most unlikely candidate for a provocateur. He’s intelligent, polite, slightly awkward. But this unassuming guy has a real talent for generating controversy.
His work was notoriously the subject of a question on the floor of the UN. Battlia Royale, staged in an abandoned high school in Cubau, Quezon City with Filipino theatre company Sipat Lawin Ensemble, was an adaptation of the Koushun Takami novel Battle Royal in which a kidnapped high school class are pitted against each other in a battle to the death. The play placed the audience amongst the action and became an internet phenomenon in the Philippines, generating as much enthusiasm as condemnation.
Finnigan returned to Australia with Sipat Lawin with Kids Killing Kids, a reflection on the experience of making and being responsible for a play that had caused so much controversy. This play raised some difficult questions about the representation of violence: was it an empowering thing in a country scarred so deeply by unacknowledged political violence, or was it simply gratuitous?
His work Kill Climate Deniers also drew fire. A bunch of right wing shockjocks, from Alex Jones’ Infowars and 2GB’s Alan Jones to the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, performed a pantomime of outrage without having read or seen the play. The initial controversy was sparked by a 2014 Aspen Island Theatre production in Canberra that caught the eye of some right wing columnists. It was eventually cancelled, after people sent death threats to Finnigan and the company and threatened to “report them to the authorities”.
Watching Kill Climate Deniers at North Melbourne Town Hall as part of FOLA, all this provocation and outrage seems very dated. I wonder for a moment about the people trawling in the wake of Bolt et al. Authority, for them, is a force of unimpeachable good that protects “our way of life.” Finnigan is a threat, a traitor and terrorist inciting audiences of impressionable inner-city audiences to hunt down and kill patriots. They can’t imagine that these authorities aren’t already aware of Finnigan’s dark misdeeds – which, after all, are advertised in the media – and need @WiteKnite69 to call them with a hot tip…
It seems to me that they must exist in a profoundly dark and limited world. I don’t feel better than these people. I don’t feel angry. I just feel bad for them. I don’t want to be them. Who’d want to live in that place?
Finnigan addresses the audience in a manner that reminds me of a Ted Talk. (Do people still do Ted Talks?) A combination of PowerPoint and an old school projector shows us infographics and transparencies of the abuse the company received. Part lecture, part monodrama, this performance is a deconstruction of the original play (which is itself currently being staged at Griffin Theatre in Sydney).
The conceit of both productions is that a group of eco-terrorists storms Parliament House in Canberra during a Fleetwood Mac concert. In the FOLA version, Finnigan himself talks us through the events of the play, performing the characters and describing the action as it progresses. This story is punctuated by a lecture-style presentation that ranges across subjects that include the history of anthropogenic climate change, ‘90s classic house music, the controversy surrounding his play and various factoids relevant to each narrative moment.
I’ve not seen both versions so I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the FOLA version might be a more contiguous experience. Because we have Finnigan’s voice throughout, we follow his enthusiasm and energy from tangent to tangent. His solitary presence on stage foregrounds his personal involvement in the project, the events surrounding it and his personal history in relation to climate change and the media.
And then I wonder: how much of this is real, and how much is amplified for the sake of effect? We only see these events from Finnigan’s perspective. In demanding that stories are authenticated by lived experience, are we making the same mistakes as the sad people with their tweets and talkback? In the moment of encounter with an idea, is truth a fetishisation of the viewer? Is veracity irrelevant? Is experience everything?
Early in the work there is a touching moment when Finnigan shows us video footage of his father, a climate scientist, receiving media training in the ‘90s. (Intelligent, polite, awkward: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Finnigan watches with a wry, maybe slightly embarrassed, smile. The man on screen is being taught how to defend the things he knows to be facts, how to shape and present them in such a way as to make them palatable to an audience who won’t want to hear them.
In its own way, Kill Climate Deniers does the same thing. The audience that comes to a show with such a clickbaity title are probably already pretty convinced by the science of climate change. The people who tweet death threats to strangers because of the title of a play are probably equally as convinced the science is a UN conspiracy. Kill Climate Deniers is ultimately more about the intractable relationship between those two groups of people than it is about the science or the story.
Kill Climate Deniers, written and performed by David Finnigan. Blistering DJ Set by Reuben Ingall. Festival of Live Art, North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House, until March 23.
Wheelchair accessible. Audio Description – 8.30pm, March 23.