Theatre

Can the story of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol show us a way through the climate crisis?

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson created The Jungle – a play following the lives of people in the Calais Jungle migrant camp and Little Amal, the giant puppet of a Syrian refugee who crossed the world. Their new play – which features John Prescott, Angela Merkel and Al Gore – looks at the 1997 Kyoto agreement and asks whether the groundbreaking environmental agreement offers hope for the future of the planet and politics

The cast of new play Kyoto in rehearsals

The cast of Kyoto, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, in rehearsals. Image: Manuel Harlan

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson created The Jungle – a play following the lives of people in the Calais Jungle migrant camp, and Little Amal – the giant puppet of a Syrian refugee who crossed the world. The new play by Murphy and Robertson – whose Good Chance Theatre company were among the Big Issue Changemakers 2019 cohort – features John Prescott, Angela Merkel and Al Gore and looks at the 1997 Kyoto agreement. Kyoto, which opens in Stratford-Upon-Avon this June, asks whether the groundbreaking environmental agreement offers hope for the future of the planet and politics

Since Good Chance’s foundation in the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in 2015, we have been privileged to work all over the world creating art of all shapes and sizes, with truly incredible artists and collaborators. 

This ranges from our play The Jungle, a story of struggle and solidarity set against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis, to The Walk, our moving festival of welcome from Syria to Glasgow with Little Amal – a three-metre-tall puppet – at its centre. We have celebrated the culture of Afghanistan by flying kites in 47 cities across four continents in the space of one day, and presented new pieces of theatre, art, music and dance in cities from Istanbul to Algiers, from Paris to Washington DC. 

The golden thread which connects all our work is the belief in art’s power to connect, surprise and imagine change. In an ever more global world of increasing disagreement, fear and polarisation sharing the same space as another person, the same air, as a heart-thumping piece of theatre explodes between, around and within you can be an antidote to isolation and individualism. It is theatre, more than any other art form, that can encourage us out of our self-created cells and get us interested in each other and society again. 

That thread extends throughout our new play. Kyoto charts the decade-long series of environmental negotiations which lead to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which contained the world’s first legally binding carbon emission targets. It’s a remarkable story of humanity finally agreeing to act in the face of climate catastrophe, and of the power of possibility, compromise and hope over powerful vested interests, and that stubborn unwillingness to change present in even the best of human nature. 

The trailer for Kyoto – Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s provocative new play at the RSC

We were drawn to the story in part because of the burning relevance of the subject matter. Scientists say that 2023 was the warmest year in 100,000 years. We face a daily onslaught of terrifying projections of the impact of climate breakdown. And, of particular pertinence to Good Chance, many hundreds of millions of people are predicted to be displaced from their homes by 2050 as a result of climate-induced drought, famine, resource scarcity and conflict. 

But what also fascinated us about this story was its incredible message of hope. The idea that nearly 200 countries, so vastly different in their backgrounds, religions, cultures and needs, could agree on something as contentious and complex as climate change was profoundly compelling. And at a time which we often feel really is a ‘golden age of disagreement’, when we find ourselves ever more entrenched in our tribal positions, maybe there could be something in this story which could be of relevance for us today. 

It also seemed to us that the 1990s had begun to feel like a period within history, and not simply like yesterday. We were interested in exploring whether there was something about this period manifestly different to our own, and if something in those differences meant that agreement in the present day feels much less possible than it did in that decade. 

And add into that the pure drama of the story. Fiendishly complex environmental negotiations might not sound like the most obvious recipe for a fun night at the theatre, but having spoken to dozens of diplomats, chief scientists, lobbyists and world leaders who participated in the talks, we were amazed to discover it’s also a political thriller, with Shakespearean levels of drama, tragedy and jeopardy. This is important for a subject which people often complain leaves them feeling depressed and powerless. One of our challenges was how to tell a story about climate change that had exactly the opposite effect: that really connected with our audience on an emotional level. That made them feel, and left them empowered and even, perhaps, hopeful. 

The RSC’s beautiful Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will be transformed into a circular UN conference hall in which audience members sit alongside actors, like delegates at a negotiation

The final, frenetic session of negotiations in Kyoto have gone down in UN history. Hundreds of countries took to the floor, proposing and debating amendments right through the night, all in the glare of the public eye: for the first time it was being live streamed using a new invention called the internet. When the chairman finally bashed his gavel at 10.15 in the morning, thousands of exhausted and bleary-eyed delegates broke down in tears and cheers of relief and joy. They had done the seemingly impossible: reached agreement. Is that something we can still find today? 

Good Chance loves theatre that makes an audience sit forward rather than sit back, storytelling that compels us to lean in and become a part of it. The RSC’s beautiful Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will be transformed into a circular UN conference hall in which audience members sit alongside actors, like delegates at a negotiation. We love putting the whole world on stage, and our company is full of incredible actors from around the world who bring such a wealth of talent and experience. 

We hope, when the final gavel of the play comes down, that our audience will share in that moment of impossible triumph. And that it might live on beyond the timber frame of the playhouse. 

Kyoto makes its world premiere in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from 18 June-13 July. For more information and to book, visit rsc.org.uk.

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