The Heretic

  • Our critic's rating:
    Thursday, February 10, 2011
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    It's strange how clutches of plays seem to appear around the same time covering the same, broad general area. Only last week, I saw 'Greenland' at the National which seemed resoundingly convinced that global warming is not only real, but will have dramatic consequences for humanity. In Richard Bean's new play, 'The Heretic', the focus is also on climate change, but the emphasis is on the science behind the concept and whether we can trust the scientists to tell us the truth - the truth as revealed by the evidence they have acquired, rather than speculation designed to inflate their egos or provide weight to proposals to acquire funds for research.

    Juliet Stevenson heads up the cast as Dr Diane Cassell, a lecturer in the department of Earth Sciences in a Yorkshire university. In Ms Stevenson's portrayal, Dr Cassell is a confident, knowledgeable woman who puts science and evidence before speculation and the need to swell the university coffers. But Diane has concerns other than university politics and academic machinations, or even the sea levels she spends most of her time measuring. Her daughter, Phoebe (excellently played by Lydia Wilson) is anorexic and spends most of her time throwing-up after meals. That in itself may seem relatively innocuous, but there are numerous life-threatening complications which accompany anorexia nervosa such as heart arrythmias and electrolyte imbalances which can cause death as we discover later in this play.

    Diane's study of the Maldives suggests sea levels are not rising as fast as predicted. Her boss (and ex-lover) Professor Kevin Maloney, wants her to delay publishing her academic paper while he seeks commercial funding for the department. Diane agrees, but then appears on Newsnight without university approval, and her boss has her suspended from her job. While all this is happening, Diane receives death threats from an environmental group.

    Richard Bean's script is hugely enjoyable, well-written and researched. But I just couldn't buy the fact that, after she's been suspended from her job by Kevin, Diane would welcome him back so readily into her home and her life. Even given obvious motivations, I found this vault face hard to swallow. And the discovery of lame scientific evidence from another university seemed to be rather too lame and too obvious to convince. Jeremy Herrin's production is nonetheless compelling and entertaining, particularly in the first half. But when the action shifts from the university campus to Diane's home, the focus changes from the academic to the personal, and the pace seems to drag. In the end, I couldn't help feeling that a substantial swathe could have been sliced off the script without doing anything but good.

    Juliet Stevenson is in impressive form as the witty and authoritative Diane. Not only does Ms Stevenson convince in terms of her academic credentials, but she's also able to show her vulnerability when the death threats arrive, scaring her to such an extent that her emotional shield fails, causing her to break down and weep. James Fleet provides excellent support as Diane's ex-lover and boss, Kevin; Adrian Hood is a near-perfect Yorkshire Tyke, with an ever-ready business card and banter to match; And Lydia Wilson is the frenetic anorexic who attacks her mother as a means of release, and who one feels is almost permanently on an emotional precipice, at least until she and Ben become an item. But the show is really stolen by Johnny Flynn in a mesmerising and highly individual performance as first-year student, Ben, a young man with a unique persona. He has most of the best lines in the play, but it's his novel and off-beat delivery which makes the character both enormously endearing and highly amusing.

    'The Heretic' is certainly engaging, funny and well worth seeing. It isn't simply about the scientific reality of climate change. What I think Richard Bean is getting at is how the continual discussion - doom mongering some would say - about catastrophic climate change impacts on and is assimilated by young people in particular. I don't think there's any attempt here to present a satisfactory answer to that, but it is the generation now at university (and generations who follow) who will have mop endure and mop up whatever mess we've left behind. I don't envy them.


    "Provocative, funny, contrarian and stimulating. It is also overlong; by the end of three hours, you feel Bean has not so much lost the plot as provided almost too much of it."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "Funny, provocative and touching, and absolutely resolute in its refusal to lapse into the apocalyptic gloom that usually attends this subject."
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

    "A characteristically funny, iconoclastic piece, part scientific romp, part jargon-filled debate."
    Heather Neill for The Stage

    "While it has some intriguing things to say about environmentalism it's at heart a romantic comedy, larded with excellent jokes and peppery satire...The Heretic is clever, imaginative and entertaining theatre."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    Guardian - Telegraph

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