The Last Hurrah is a daring and innovative play exploring the lived experience of climate change. Born out of a collaborative research-project by the Geography and Drama departments at Bath Spa University, the play is loosely based on the story of Kivalina in Northern Alaska, whose culture has traditionally centred around bowhead whaling. The community, who were originally nomadic, were told by the US government that they would have to settle on a permanent site. Failing that, their children would be taken from them. The village is currently threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion. It is predicted that the island will be inundated by 2025.
The performance at Cornerstone Arts Centre marked the show’s touring debut under producer Darren Walter. I sat in the foyer, bracing myself for a grim experience, one which would inevitably make me leave the theatre feeling nothing but guilt, and a good measure of hopelessness. After all, the play is about climate change. How else could I expect it to make me feel? My despondence was disrupted by a dozen dungaree-clad actors, armed with ladders, buckets and something which could only resemble a harpoon rush into the space, smashing down the fourth wall (which hadn’t even been established at this stage). “Bear with us, we’re just going to get a few things set up, but we’re ready to start! Will you come with us?” There is a ripple of excitement, and bemusement too, amongst audience members who awkwardly gather their bags and coats as they follow this curious band of players into the auditorium.
This unexpected beginning is characteristic of the whole piece - unpredictable, surrealist at times and completely wonderful (in all shades of the word). Director Rew Lowe said that he was inspired by the fact of the sea turning neon-orange one night in Kivalina. “There is something magical, almost fairy-tale about this, that really made for some interesting material from a dramatic perspective”.
The tension between the story being presented as an epic narrative, and the fact that it is based on real-life events, is something that is handled with sensitivity and maturity. Rather than capitalising off the suffering of a community in order to achieve a compelling performance, The Last Hurrah is primarily dedicated to keeping the story of the community alive. This was evident in a pre-show panel discussion which included some of the student actors in the piece. Tilly Dodwell said that, as a drama student, she joined the project because she saw it as an opportunity to develop her technique. “But now when I perform this piece, making people aware of climate change is absolutely what drives me”. Even the production processes made the students more aware of their own impact; the set was constructed from items they had found in skips around Bath, for example.
As well as being a research project and a stand-out piece of theatre in its own right, The Last Hurrah is also a vocational training project aiming to bridge undergraduate and professional experiences. The level of talent certainly surpassed that of most student theatre productions, mainly due to the conviction and confidence of the actors. The fact that the piece was devised must have led to a feeling of ownership over the piece, which came across strongly. In the play, the actors called each other by their real names, and frequently broke out of character to comment on the process of making the piece: telling us “This hasn’t gone wrong before!” as the ice broke repetitively (represented by a perilous yet remarkable contraption involving pallets and ropes). Far from being jarring, this dual narrative led to a pleasing synthesis of the immediate with the “other”.Rather than being presented as “other”, the audience were brought closer to the characters in the piece, the actors providing a window into this life in Northern Alaska that is so different from our own.
Our empathy with the characters led to simultaneously poignant and hilarious moments. Jacob is blamed for causing the storms (which are represented in a mesmerising synchronised electronic dance sequence using white tarpaulins); yet it isn’t his fault. It spoke to me as being reminiscent of current feelings of guilt towards climate change issues. Individuals feel personally responsible for climate change, despite the fact that big companies need to take responsibility, and change their entire way of operating before significant progress can be made. There were also some absurd and slapstick moments, such as when James decides to leave, taking his clothes off before storming out of the theatre. The sequence is a display of comic genius, delivered excellently, but I feel that some of these open-ended moments perhaps needed to find more synergy with the plot and overarching theme for the piece to become more succinct. Equally I think it would be a shame for the piece to lose some of its raw energy and sheer unpredictability that makes it so engaging.
The use of objects in the piece is inventive and imaginative. The whale hunt is a stand-out sequence which had my heart racing - a theatrical feat. Despite not having a physical object to represent the whale (which quite frankly would look ridiculous), the whale’s presence was felt as real and immediate, as the actors conducted the exceptionally-well choreographed piece with dynamism and conviction. Despite the set appearing as minimalist - reminiscent of the bleak terrain of “the North” - it was clear a lot of time and effort had gone into making it. The actors' use of the space was effortless, despite the potential for many technical hitches.
Despite this evidently being a show about the effects of climate change, there is no mention of “climate change” whatsoever. Resisting the urge to be preachy, the play instead compels the immediate engagement of the audience with the characters on stage. It is the humanity at the heart of the piece that makes it so moving; rather than presenting a climate change narrative laced with colossal figures and shocking statistics, the play hones in on a few people who we learn about and feel for.
There is a striking combination of the intimately personal with the epic throughout the play, and this synthesis leads to something quite fantastic. I came away thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends with the small town of Macondo being blown off the face of the earth, in the same way that the community is effaced in this play (without giving too much away). Yet, I left feeling far from hopeless. I left feeling energised and ready to fight this climate emergency battle.
For a student production, it was extraordinary; for a professional production, it was exemplary. Not only is it a wonderful piece of theatre in its own right, it also presents an exciting new way of working climate change issues into theatrical and educational structures. The Last Hurrah should be considered a leading example to any theatre-makers or researchers striving to create art which inspires audiences (and participants) to climate action.