Not known, because not looked for/But heard, half-heard, in the stillness/Between two waves of the sea. Ian Meadows’ play Between Two Waves opens with its protagonist, a climate scientist called Daniel (Matt Crook, above) reaching for T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding.
Daniel stands alone in a small pool of light, a long, strong shadow behind him. ‘You get to the gate and realise you’re back where you started, or something,’ he says. He’s thinking of Eliot’s ‘unknown, unremembered gate’ from the same poem from which the play takes its title.
The exact words have been submerged under time and memory, just as Daniel’s house has been submerged by a storm, his precious climate data potentially irretrievable from flooded hard drives. What he wants to say, like Eliot, is that all journeys end where they begin, and that with this, for the traveller, comes a new knowledge of that place.
Daniel is negotiating with Grenelle (Elena Carapetis), an insurance adjuster, to get his files and his furniture back, or at least compensated for. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, Daniel meets and falls in love with the extroverted Fiona (Ellen Steele), ‘the deputy secretary’s secretary’s assistant’ in the government’s climate change department (the play was first produced in 2012 when the idea that our federal elected representatives might take the threat of climate change seriously enough to conceive of, let alone fund, such a department was not laughable). Daniel is also working for the government, under the tutelage of fellow climatologist Jimmy (James Edwards), to produce a green paper, called Path to the Future, on the direction of climate change policy.
Meadows’ script, however, is less about climate change as a scientific phenomenon than as a political and, especially, social one (in this respect, a scene in which Daniel debates a denialist on a tabloid TV show feels dated and superfluous). The dilemma that drives the drama is not whether we are doing enough to abate potentially catastrophic anthropogenic climate change –Meadows makes it clear that he thinks we are not — but how we are to proceed in our daily lives with the knowledge of its far-reaching reality that, as Naomi Klein puts it in her new book on the subject, ‘changes everything’.
Klein has said elsewhere that for a long time she struggled to reconcile her desire to have a child with her fear of how climate change would shape that child’s future, but in the end chose defiantly to ‘not let the motherfuckers win’ and became pregnant (she now has a two-year-old son). Klein’s motherfuckers were the extractive industry companies, and the businesspeople and politicians who prop them up to the detriment of the planet. There is little in Meadows’ script about, say, Big Coal or fracking, but Daniel and Fiona reach the same point as Klein, torn between fulfilling their dreams of parenthood and their intimate awareness of climate change’s potential for devastation.
Despite the fact that its origins as a film script are sometimes intrusively obvious, Between Two Waves is solidly written, and breezily naturalistic and sensitive in its tonal shifts from angsty, high-stakes drama to romantic comedy lightness. Crook, although a few years too young to wholly convince as a scientist who has had forty peer-reviewed papers published, gives a physically and psychologically detailed account of Daniel. It’s a demanding role (one that Meadows himself played in the Griffin Theatre Company premiere) and Crook works hard, despite the fact he often makes it look effortless, to evenly weigh the internalised and externalised manifestations of Daniel’s deep anxiousness about the future, his relationship with Fiona, and the pressing need for him to enter into the public conversation about climate change. Steele, meanwhile, charms as Fiona, forming a seemingly unaffected rapport with the character’s essential free-spiritedness. Carapetis and Edwards, in their small roles, provide fine support.
Putting aside the play’s frustratingly undercooked subplot about Daniel’s sister and the faint whiff of eco-conspiracy about his long-unexplained hand injury, if there is one aspect of Between Two Waves that I found irksome it’s the play’s gendered representations of the search for knowledge and the yearning to have children. The men, both scientists, are largely exempted from the latter, and the women, though both professionals, are at times defined entirely by their relationships with childrearing. It’s an arrangement that leaves a slight bad taste in the mouth as the tension around Fiona’s pregnancy builds, because it reinforces two unpleasant stereotypes: those of the rational, career-driven man whose brilliance is unencumbered by their biology, and of the unreasonable, unscientific woman who is emasculated by her longing for motherhood. It’s an oversight that, while not lethal, robs the dénouement of some of its emotive and polemical rush.
Corey McMahon’s direction is, on the whole, flattering, adhering closely to Meadows’ highly prescriptive stage instructions but minimising the script’s filmic character with soft scene transitions and by limiting the use of projection. Olivia Zanchetta’s drab, trapezoid set is appropriately claustrophobic, the translucent walls allowing for some exquisite lighting effects by Nic Mollison as well as the technically and visually impressive use of water to simulate heavy rain. Jason Sweeney’s electronic sound design is refreshingly discreet.
‘And then everything just goes back to square one,’ says Daniel near the end of the play, ‘worse: we get a new government, with a worse policy and we go backwards…’ Meadows could not have foreseen just how far backwards we now know a government is capable of taking us — a price on carbon scrapped, the Renewable Energy Target slashed, the Climate Commission abolished — but the prescience of these lines is shocking. We are, indeed, back where we started, our knowledge, like our powerlessness, not only intact but expanded, the destination distant, not known because not looked for.