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Ten Billion

Published 19 July 2012

By the end of the century, scientist Stephen Emmott predicts, the world’s population will have risen to 10 billion. The Royal Court has set about explaining what this means to us in the most direct and devastating of ways.

The disclaimer: “I’m not an actor, I’m a scientist” which opens the hour long production is the start of an evening which bears no relation to any regular ideas of theatre,  instead taking the form of what the Oxford and University College London professor – amongst many other hugely impressive achievements listed in his unusual programme credits – does best, a scientific lecture.

It is, however, a science lecture directed by Katie Mitchell, which is where the theatrics – however minimal – come in. Set in a “frighteningly realistic” replica of Emmott’s office, journals cluttering up shelves, discarded folders, unloved  pot plants and Ikea wine glasses still in their packaging, Mitchell turns her hand to creating a simple yet effective multi-media presentation that puts Power Point to shame and a soundtrack of strings that set a slightly panicked tone.

Those expecting any theatrical bells and whistles will be disappointed, the focus is left entirely on Emmott and the host of terrifying stats on his laptop. In a nutshell, our planet cannot sustain the pressure we are putting on it as a result of our constant demand for food and products – or “stuff” as Emmott unlovingly frequently refers to it – with Emmott describing climate change in a way that makes it far more immediate than the churned out image of a polar bear sitting on a melting ice cap he scathingly reminds us of.

Throughout the lecture Emmott relays statistics that are mind boggling and frightening in equal parts – who knew it took the same amount of energy to do a Google search as boiling a kettle? The ones that get the most gasping reactions from the audience are the true extent to which we are using water. Those who remember the campaigns to cut down water wastage from their youth may well still equate saving water to turning off the tap when brushing your teeth and taking showers instead of baths. Unfortunately when it takes 3000 litres to make one of the world’s most devoured snacks, the Big Mac, or four litres just to produce a one litre bottle of water, the difference one can make in your own home becomes depressingly small fry.

This is the overwhelming premise that Emmott presents in the production; we, as an individual, can pretty much do nothing in his view. If you felt you were doing your bit by buying an electric car, Emmott tells us, you’re missing the point. While the scientist takes us through many potential plans of attack, in this man’s view there are no magical solutions set to appear and, with little laboratory research actually taking place, the only solution would be for governments around the world to sit up and take notice.

Whether Ten Billion is theatre or not is up for debate. If your view of theatre is something that widens your perspective and leaves you on your journey home unable to think about anything else, then this is undoubtedly it. Emmott may not be an actor but his ‘performance’ is as engrossing and hard-hitting as anything else you’ll see on stage.

Pragmatists may be frustrated by the lack of a conclusion that enables you to leave feeling able to action any positive changes and to impart Emmott’s only real words of advice – or warning if you’d prefer – would be like giving away the ending to a play. However it’s fair to say, a happy ending it is not.


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