In the Swedish city of Umea, 400 miles north of Stockholm, they’ve been noticing the advance of climate change for a couple of decades now. Where they once had snow and hard frost from November to April, now they have a milder pattern of snowfalls and thaws; the sea between Sweden and Finland no longer freezes every winter, as it once did.
And this summer, just after the Scottish company Dogstar and the local independent theatre company Profilteatern finished rehearsing their latest co-production in Umea, northern Sweden began to experience its hottest ever summer heatwave, with temperatures soaring above 30 degrees even inside the Arctic Circle, and wildfires blazing in many parts of the country. Which makes it all the more interesting – and challenging – that climate change is the chosen theme for this latest joint Scottish-Swedish project, about to premiere at the Pleasance Courtyard during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
“We first met Ulla and Jan Karlsson from Profilteatern about 12 years ago,” says Dogstar’s artistic director Matthew Zajac, “when Robert Livingstone of the former Highland arts agency Hi-Arts was putting together conversations between artists in northern Scotland and northern Sweden. But this project dates back to about 2015, when we were looking for a follow-up to our collaboration on Factor 9, our agitprop show about the Edinburgh blood transfusion scandal of the 1980s; and we decided that climate change was the subject we wanted to tackle next.”
The show that has emerged, though – written by brilliant Doric surrealist playwright Morna Pearson, and directed by long-standing Dogstar associate Ben Harrison – may well deliver something of a shock to audience members expecting a fierce polemic like Factor 9, or even a piece of lyrical and thoughtful political theatre like last year’s Dogstar Fringe show, The Sky Is Safe; because according to Zajac and Harrison, Let’s Inherit The Earth is more like a high-energy spoof disaster movie with a strong punk aesthetic, songs by neo-traditional folk star Jonny Hardie, and a distinct Brechtian edge. Essentially, it combines the stories of a bunch of rich people suddenly driven out of their Caribbean holiday paradise by a plague of stinking seaweed, and a pair of hapless Scottish would-be survivalists who wander out from a flooded north-east Scotland, and meet some Swedes who are much more organised.
“We’ve got a fantastic cast of two Scottish actors and three Swedes, and we’ve been having a great time in rehearsal,” says Harrison, who also directed The Taylor Of Inverness, Dogstar’s much-loved show about the life story of Zajac’s Polish-born father. “This is a real co-production, in the sense that we have a Scottish writer and director, a brilliant Swedish designer, and a cast from both countries, so it’s not just a matter of us doing the show, and Pofilteatern putting in some resources – it’s a real creative collaboration.
“And I think we’re going for a deliberately gross style in order to mirror the grossness of what’s going on in the world – some of the characters are climate-change deniers, for instance, and their position is grotesque and absurd, when it is obvious that climate change is happening, and what we need to do about it. So I think that’s how, between me and Morna and Matthew and the designer, Ulla Karlsson, we hit on this absurdist style, with a lot of humour. It’s what I’d call a radical impulse of laughter in the face of crisis; and that’s why Brecht is quite an important influence, with that urge to go on laughing and joking and making satirical songs, in the darkest times.”
Let’s Inherit The Earth is also a big show compared with Dogstar’s usual small-scale touring work, with a cast of five, spectacular lighting, and an element of sheer visual spectacle; and although the project is supported by a substantial £94,000 grant from Creative Scotland, Zajac is clear that it would have been impossible to produce without the involvement of Profilteatern. “Umea is a small city of less than 100,000 people,” says Zajac, “and yet it has a big city theatre, and an opera house, and this wonderfully equipped independent theatre, Profilteatern. They have at least matched Creative Scotland’s contribution to this project; and in fact, when I go to work with companies in Nordic countries, I often wonder why I didn’t just move to Sweden 25 years ago – the support for theatre there is so generous, by our standards.”
For now, though, Zajac seems happy to continue the collaboration with Nordic countries that has played a key role in the 20-year history of Dogstar; and he’s keen to point out that although Let’s Inherit The Earth takes a boldly absurdist approach to the defining issue of our time, it’s not relentlessly comic, or without its bleak moments.
“I guess some people may find it shocking, or a bit too close to the bone,” says Zajac, who plays both a Highland Laird and the hapless Scottish survivalist Grant in the show. “Sweden does burn in the play, as it has been doing in the last few weeks, along with parts of Greece and Canada and the United States.
“I suppose our aim, though, is to shake up some of the sense of depression and powerlessness around climate change. We want to bolster people’s sense that there is something they can do, and to cheer them up. Yes, it’s terrible. But we can still celebrate ourselves, and our capacity to act; the fact that things can change, and people can make them change, so long as they come together to laugh and cry, and to confront the crisis in all its horror and absurdity, as this show tries to do.” n
Let’s Inherit The Earth is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, from 10-26 August, and on tour around Scotland from 8 October until 3 November