Theatre preview: Playwright Clare Duffy on her climate change drama Arctic Oil

The issue of climate change is tackled through the prism of an intense family drama in Arctic Oil, Clare Duffy's new play for the Traverse, writes Joyce McMillan

Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black in rehearsals for Arctic Oil

In September 2013, 30 Greenpeace activists were arrested at gunpoint by Russian coastguard troops in the Arctic Ocean, after trying to stage a protest on one of the first-ever oil rigs in Arctic waters. It’s one of the great ironies of the age of climate change that the warming of the Arctic has begun to open up the region to yet more exploitation of fossil fuels, the key contributors to what could become a catastrophic warming process; and when the Edinburgh-based playwright and director Clare Duffy heard the story, she was struck by the contrast between the powerlessness most of us feel in relation to this vast global crisis, and the determination of some environmental activists to face severe physical conditions and real danger in order to attract worldwide attention, and galvanise calls for change.

“I thought it would be a great idea to write a play about that kind of activism, and the people involved in it,” says Duffy, after a day in rehearsals for her new play Arctic Oil, which opens at the Traverse this weekend. “I put the idea forward in 2013, when I applied for the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) fellowship, a great joint project between the Traverse and Edinburgh University; but by the time I started work on the project, I was pregnant with my son, who’s now three. I began the play, but it wasn’t working; then I took some maternity leave, and when I came back, I found the whole thing had taken on a different shape, and a new focus.”

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Duffy grew up in east London and went to university in Leeds, where she studied theatre and English literature, and – after graduation in 1995 – she became a co-founder with Chris Thorpe and John Spooner of Unlimited Theatre, pioneers of powerful, cutting-edge theatre exploring contemporary themes in unconventional ways. In 2004 she moved to Edinburgh, and since then has forged a strikingly varied and inventive career in 21st century theatre, studying for a PhD at Glasgow University, and creating shows for both adults and children on subjects that range from the power and theory of money – she created Money, The Game Show at the Arches in 2011, with 10,000 actual pound coins on stage – to the nature of autism, explored in this summer’s beautiful outdoor National Theatre of Scotland show, The Reason I Jump, on which she worked as dramaturg. And later this autumn, she will be returning to work on her artistic residency at Perth Theatre, creating a project called The Big Data Show, a show and app designed to fill traditional theatres with teenagers all using their mobile phones to explore themes around data, privacy and the law.

This weekend, though, Duffy’s work moves centre stage at the Traverse, as the Arctic Oil project reaches fruition. She says that she sees a strong through-line in all her work, about how we, in our very private lives, interact with the big world crises of our time, from the financial crash to climate change; and she is clear about how her approach to the Arctic Oil story began to change after her son was born.

“I began to think again about that heroic group of activists, and about how it would feel to be someone left behind by that group. I began to imagine this character, Ella, who is a passionate environmental activist, but who has just had a child, and is having to negotiate with herself and with her mother Margaret, another very powerful character, what that means in terms of responsibilities and priorities.

“There’s also another very strong theme in the play about truth and denial, about two people who believe different things, and can’t prove what they believe to each other. Margaret doesn’t believe in climate change, Ella believes the opposite; so the question becomes who controls the data on which we base our beliefs, who has control of the narrative, and whether we need an element of denial in order to survive. Then there’s the Naomi Klein question about which kind of denial is worst – the denial of those who say climate change doesn’t exist, or the denial of those, probably most of us, who accept that it exists, but go on living pretty much as before, as if nothing has changed.”

The play that has emerged from this process is a fierce 75-minute two-hander, featuring Neshla Caplan as the daughter, Ella, and Local Hero and Rebus star Jennifer Black as her mother, Margaret; and it will be directed by the Traverse’s associate director Gareth Nicholls, whose recent work includes this year’s Traverse festival smash-hit Ulster American.

“This is a play that deals with big questions about climate change and oil,” says Nicholls, “and yet does it in a way that’s warm and human and gritty, and very immediate. It’s like a boxing-ring, really, with two strong women who hold very strong beliefs, and who both believe they’re fighting for the future, in the shape of Ella’s son and Margaret’s grandson; Ella feels trapped, both literally and metaphorically, and that makes the drama very intense.”

For Duffy, it’s all about drawing audiences into the human dramas sparked by this huge global debate. “I hope that this play will make people feel something about this issue, and get under the skin of it a bit. I think we often feel that it’s just too big, too far away, too difficult to get to grips with. Yet here, we see it played out in a very powerful mother-daughter relationship, full of love as well as anger, that we can all recognise; and I hope that for many people, that will help to bring the whole question – and the decisions we may all have to make about it, sooner or later – much closer to home.” n

Arctic Oil is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 20 October