Earthquakes in London: A Frenzied Exploration of Environment and Humanity

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

What do you do when you’re afraid to go out, but scared to stay in? That you’re “stuck in this flat that the walls are moving in on and everything is becoming dangerous?”

What do you do when you are the only one who feels the coming earthquake?

This year’s Senior Company production, Earthquakes in London, approaches the question of the rapport between characters and society in a refraction of modern civilization, where relationships with other humans and the environment are broken.

The play tackles the menace of climate change through the lens of a dysfunctional British family. The characters try desperately to get above water, both literally and metaphorically (in one transition, cast members “swim” across on scooters). Each one is aware of the coming disaster — an earthquake about to strike the city and cause a flood – but all of them are absolutely unable to connect with one another in a way that could actually help. The play weds a classical scare-mongering narrative of environmental destruction with a deeply moving family tragedy that produces an extremely intelligent and nuanced version of reality.

In the masterfully worked split-scene frenzy that is Act I, the destruction of modern society unfolds onstage. Sarah (Michaela Shuchman ’16) and Carter (Alexander Rojavin ’15) use each other in the satirically obscure political goings-on that drive the country’s environmental destruction. Meanwhile, Freya (Amelia Dornbush ’15) engages with her pseudo-imagined student Peter (Jocelyn Adams ‘15), who guides her as she toes the line between realities. Jasmine (Anita Castillo-Halvorssen ‘15), the 19-year-old recently expelled from university, performs Mother Nature in burlesque begging not to “leave the rainforest naked.” And poignantly, Colin (Nathan Siegel ’15) sits alone in bed while his imagination conjures a youthful party scene via his computer, while he stands on the margins watching students dance as Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” pervades the soundscape.

The show’s split scenes and rich, often hilarious transitions give life and texture to the play’s portrayal of modern life. Sometimes these transitions are abrupt – just as life can indeed be cruel and abrupt at times. In one scene, Jasmine watches an intoxicated Colin jump around the stage singing Arcade Fire and kisses him on the lips. The audience remains mouth agape as Robert (Stefan Tuomanen ’15), Jasmine’s father and environmental doomsday scientist, almost immediately strides onstage trailed by a frustrated Steve (Josh McLucas ‘15), Freya’s husband. In the transition, Colin and Jasmine’s silent aftermath plays out while the audience holds what they just saw simultaneously with the next scene, in which Steve discovers that the implications of Robert’s science are the root of his wife’s distress.

But Freya’s warning cries are not enough to shake the people around her. In a particularly hilarious dramatic device, each character is embodied in chairs they sit in. Freya sits in a sad armchair in her house; as he is being belittled by his father-in-law, Steve sits in a child’s chair at the dinner table. Like our social roles, the chairs we sit in are socially and relationally inscribed, and like our social roles, we are comfortable in own chairs.

Earthquakes in London intends to challenge that comfort. The play urgently stresses that climate change is coming, but that dramatic population control will not solve anything. While climate change is rarely addressed through the medium of a theatrical family drama, this play thoroughly tackles the issue through a deeply humanistic lens, placing a premium on human lives and culture that is unfound in most classically environmentalist works. The answer to climate change lies in post-industrial countries in the eyes of everyone – implicitly through Robert’s injunction: “if you want to be green, hold your breath” — and more directly in Tom’s (Tyler Elliott ’15) demand that politicians and companies go further than halting all air travel expansion.

These complex ideas play out interpersonally as Robert’s science suggests that Freya is wrong to bring a baby into the world. The play critiques Robert’s simplification of the issue in Steve’s desire to keep his baby. It is even more nuanced in Steve’s strained relationship with Freya, where he values the baby more than his wife. Freya’s character embodies issues surrounding womanhood and mental illness – does she want the baby and does she have a say?

In one of the show’s most poignant moments, the ensemble dresses as London’s women, carrying scarves in their arms as babies. The women are phantoms of Freya’s conception of family and motherhood – they are “good” people who do charity work on Thursdays. In a comically exaggerated, ultimately tragic encounter, Freya curls up on the stage and the women unfurl their scarves over her, releasing a storm of plastic bones, casually tossing their raincoats and coffee cups over her body.

The play culminates in a passionate and messianic speech by Freya and a scene that blurs the lines of the real, as Freya lies in a space occupied by Steve on one side and on the other side her dead mother (Danica Harvey ’15, who also plays an amazing and hilarious multitude of other characters), the future, heaven, and all of time and space atomized and distilled. We are all a part of nature, the play tells us, which has psychological as well as societal implications.

Freya finds that she is no one and everyone at the same time, which is critical in breaking down the nature-culture divide that often prohibits us from recognizing our own lived space (both physical and social) as an environment worth caring about.

This crucial rendering of the environment and society as omnipresent gives us a way out of the walls that immobilize us.

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Theater Department.

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