It must be tough writing drama about the political issue du jour. Worthy causes can be adapted into unwatchable dross, while intellectual scrap metal can be spun into theatrical gold. A case of the latter is The Heretic, a junk-science delivery mechanism masquerading as a mother–daughter drama. It’s highly entertaining and scientifically worthless.
The Heretic’s protagonist is Professor Diane Cassell (Noni Hazlehurst), a climatologist who finds herself ostracised by her boss Kevin (Andrew McFarlane) for publishing data that conflict with the theory of anthropocentric global warming (AGW). Adding to Diane’s troubles is her severely anorexic (and fairly obnoxious) daughter Phoebe (Anna Samson), who is rapidly developing a mutual attraction to her mother’s fresh-faced, hopelessly idealistic greenie student Ben (Shaun Goss).
The protagonist’s struggles with family and establishment provide The Heretic with ample dramatic juice. Hazlehurst is roughly charming as the prickly scientist who must defend her principles in extremely difficult circumstances; Samson is luridly entertaining as her daughter. Shaun Goss is very amusing as a hopelessly idealistic greenie, especially given the absurd inconsistencies of the character he’s saddled with. (This is a guy who supposedly understands the finer points of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, yet is shocked – simply shocked! – to discover that Toyota Priuses often run on coal-fired electricity.)
The Heretic’s twisted mother–daughter tale is highly affecting, as an increasingly despairing Diane does everything she can to save her physically abusive and self-destructive daughter while her own career is being ruthlessly impugned by her colleagues. The developing relationship between embittered Phoebe and ultra-naïve Ben is touching, while Diane’s rekindling of her long-dormant relationship with Kevin is handled with considerable wit and tenderness (if a few too many dad jokes about stoned 60-year-olds).
Intellectually, however, The Heretic is a disaster. To picture the extent of its scientific illiteracy, imagine a similar play about an 85-year-old man who’s smoked two packs a day since he was a teenager. On the strength of this single example, a professor publishes a paper denying the link between smoking and lung cancer. He is fired for his transgression; however, another 85-year-old lifelong smoker is discovered shortly afterwards. In the final act, everyone agrees that the link between smoking and lung cancer has been conclusively disproved. Hurrah for scientific rigour!
Transport that scenario to climate change and you pretty much have The Heretic. Diane’s professional saga begins when her observational data on the Maldives fail to show rising sea levels. Apparently, this single anomaly is enough to disprove observed global sea level rise and throw the vast body of climate science into disarray. (Contrary to the play’s implication, global sea level doesn’t rise at an even rate.)
Things eventually turn out for the best – for the characters, if not for the playwright’s intellectual integrity. In a wishful reimagining of the ‘Climategate’ email-hacking scandal that plays out like a low-rent version of All The President’s Men, Diane and Kevin find distortions aplenty buried in a rival university’s incriminating cache of climate-related emails. As a result, all of Diane’s suspicions about AGW are vindicated. (The ‘Climategate’ scandal was bogus – not that you’d know that from watching The Heretic.)
Interestingly, the MTC must have realised at some point that slathering the audience with denialist soul butter isn’t a great tactic for any halfway-respectable institution. As if to apologise for the dreck presented on stage, the play’s program features several climate science–based quotations that directly contradict the play’s position. (The program’s account of ‘Climategate’, for example, is substantially more accurate than the play’s laughable retelling of events.)
Despite the emotional punch of Diane’s personal trials and the snappy one-liners flung about between embattled characters like confetti, The Heretic’s outraged, denialist-lib rhetoric is pretty hard going at times. It’s especially groan-worthy when characters drag out the soapbox and start talking like helpless victims of an intolerant establishment – when they’re merely being treated the same as, say, phrenologists would be. Even the play’s title, which cutely alludes to global warming as a ‘religion’ that treats dissenters as ‘heretics’, obscures the fact that a similarly paranoid analogy could be drawn with any basic scientific tenet. That’s not conspiratorial, just pragmatic. If scientists had to spend all their time dealing with fringe-dwellers, they’d never get any work done.
While there is a topically relevant play buried in The Heretic, the time to write it would have been twenty years ago, when the basics of climate science were still being hammered out. For a present-day climatologist, Cassell seems blissfully unaware of the fact that AGW is supported by multiple lines of evidence.
When you strip back the guff, The Heretic is a modest family drama about a woman struggling to look after her mentally fragile daughter. But of course, that wouldn’t have got nearly as much attention.
Written by Richard Bean, Directed by Matt Scholten
Starring Noni Hazlehurst, Anna Samson, Shaun Goss, Lyall Brooks, Andrew McFarlane and Katy Warner
Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company
Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.