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Review – SUDS Presents: Kill Climate Deniers

SUDS’ new play gave Prudence Wilkins-Wheat a few ideas...

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Kill Climate Deniers is as radical in style as it is in theme. Directors Ange Tran and Matthew Forbes took this starkly relevant dialogue-heavy script and energised it. What could have dragged, actually became an animated, moving commentary on one of the most politicised topics in modern times: the climate.

This satirical black comedy involves a group of eco-terrorists led by Catch (Serena Dalton) who take hostage a group of politicians and journalists in Parliament House until they put in place an immediate solution for climate change, by threat of death. It becomes a show-down between the climate terrorists and Environment Minister, Gwen Malkin (Margaret Thanos).

Partial to the title and plot, I had a suspicion that I was going to like this play.

On entrance, audiences are presented with a set over-taken with activist-style graffiti, introducing the anarchic character of the radical play.  The set updates David Finnigan’s 2014 play to fit its 2020 Sydney audience. Familiar Climate Strike protest chant “keep your carbon in the soil” is graffitied next to an infamous black and white shot of now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison clutching a lump of coal, wheat-pasted onto the wall. 

The production deftly blurs the lines between current climate anxieties and activism and the absurdity of the play’s world. Indeed, one of the great successes of the play was the relationship established with its audience. We’re welcomed into the world with various USyd specific in-jokes (this rag gets a brief appearance) and immersive acting. One of my favourite moments was when the audience melts into the crowd of the captured parliamentarians and we are addressed as hostages. This thrilling destruction of the third wall was in part introduced through Finnigan’s meta-references to the production of the play itself, referencing the public outcry he experienced over such a “dangerous” title – to quote one question posed by the narrators: “is the play an act of terrorism?”

This delightful self-awareness was guided by the Finnigan duo, played by Declan Coyle and Tom Hetherington-Welch. These two regularly improvising with audiences and cast members, at one moment accusing an older gentleman in the front row of being a possible right-wing stooge, making us all laugh, keeping the energy up and the transitions smooth. Their witty banter and cameos were a welcome highlight that elevated what could have been a this-that kind of debate into an entertaining and layered discussion with a rule-breaking style that reminded me of The Big Short or Vice. Are Tran and Forbes the new Adam McKay?

Many cues seem to have been taken from film, including the use of soundtracks during tense moments, fight scenes or moments of triumph. If the music directors could release the soundtrack on Spotify, I would appreciate it. But a particular innovation that audiences enjoyed was the creative use of multimedia. Two projectors mounted on the set allowed directors to subvert on-stage discussions. It was used to explore the role of social media in dramatising perspectives on climate activism and for the hilarious satire of mining company propaganda. Innovative and true to the modernity of the topic, I congratulate AV director, Charlie Hollands.

However, particularly outstanding was the calibre of acting in this play. The performances were intense, funny and perfectly styled for theatre. I was particularly impressed by the chemistry between pairs, including Malkin and her social media director (Abi Coffey) whose comedic back-and-forth was a crowd favourite. However, the person most everyone remembers with commemoration was Zoe Hinton as Beverly Ille for her science monologue. Flitting between on-camera pantomime and nervously shaking as a climate activist threatens her with a gun, she gave the audience pause in the play’s darker moments, which may otherwise have been lost between musical numbers and comedic monologues. She stole the show, making the argument that “scientists suck” seem oddly convincing. I also particularly loved the hilarious Annie McDonalds as Fleetwood Mac, whose singing and acting were of equal star quality, and Serena Dalton as Catch, who brings all the charm and cool rage of a cult leader on the edge.

The only fault, if I had to name one, was the message in the writing, which is more my note to Finnigan than to SUDs. I was rather confused by his commentary. He didn’t treat this climate issue with subtlety or detail but instead straw manned both sides by placing two caricatures, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, in one closed room. It was not about activists, but communist eco-terrorists and it wasn’t about big businesses, but evil climate deniers. In the end, we’re left most sympathetic towards a politician in the pocket of big business, who we’re repeatedly reminded has compromised on real action on climate change.

However, Finnigan does not promise a nuanced stance on one of the most complicated issues of our time, but a daring commentary challenging the trust we place in either side of the political argument.

Indeed, I wasn’t just taking notes for Honi Soit.

This play lived up to my expectations, presenting something modern, fun and a little mad — it experimented and succeeded in presenting a new twist on a topic that thousands are trying to talk about.

Kill Climate Deniers is set to play until 21 March, but unfortunately might be another casualty of COVID-19. See the Facebook page for the latest updates.

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