July 20, 2012 8:55 pm

Ten Billion, Royal Court Upstairs, London

A disturbing show that presents a hair-raising lecture on the impact humanity is having on the planet

Ten Billion is one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage – and yet it is not in any normal sense theatre. “I’m a scientist, not an actor,” warns Stephen Emmott at the outset. And so he is – professor of computing at Oxford University and head of Microsoft Research’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge – and what follows is a quiet but hair-raising lecture on the impact humanity is having on the planet.

It is not easy to assess as theatre: it is directed by Katie Mitchell, but with a light touch – her input can be felt in the pacing of delivery, the accompanying projections and Giles Cadle’s intricately detailed set, which is, according to Emmott, a “frighteningly accurate” reproduction of his lab. She could have offered a more exciting fusion of fact and art, but that might have distracted from the impact of Emmott’s measured, sometimes droll delivery and the catastrophic nature of his material.


IN Theatre & Dance

And why here? Well, academic lectures are delivered in lecture theatres and Emmott remarks that the audience for climate conferences is changing – there are more faces from the military these days.

We are, he tells us, in an “unprecedented planetary emergency”. The population has more than doubled in the past 50 years and is likely to hit 10bn before the end of this century. An “intelligent and inventive” species, we have adapted the planet’s resources to suit our needs up to now, but we stand at a tipping point where our use of those resources impacts on the planet and the climate, thereby imperilling the resources themselves.

Emmott traces how we got here, through a series of revolutions, each stage demonstrating our ingenuity, yet contributing ultimately to a situation that we might not be able to invent our way out of. Towards the end, to the palpable relief of the audience, he outlines some possible solutions: technological, business and behavioural changes. But his assessment is that none is being applied seriously or radically enough.

The show would benefit from dramatic conflict: another voice debating the matter, asking sharp questions. But it remains immensely, distressingly powerful. In theatre, we hope for a clever plot-twist to solve an intractable problem. Emmott’s monologue offers no such comfort. “I think we’re fucked,” he says. One hopes his bleak assessment is delivered so bluntly to provoke action.

4 stars


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