Culture Writer Megan Hughes reviews Kyoto, praising the immersive set design and cast performances in this dramatic story of the Kyoto Protocol

Written by Megan Hughes
Images by Manuel Harlan

Kyoto is two hours of political ping pong in an era of scientific uncertainty and denial regarding climate change. This new play, written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, already cements itself as a key cultural player in the theatrical canon. Kyoto dramatises the events leading up to the landmark UN 1997 conference, which established an official UN stance on climate change with the Kyoto Protocol. 

The production goes to great lengths in order to immerse the audience within the sweat and sleaze of […] ‘hand to hand combat’

Before the play even begins, the production goes to great lengths in order to immerse the audience within the sweat and sleaze of what lawyer and anti-climate lobbyist Don Pearlman (Stephen Kunken) calls metaphorical ‘hand to hand combat.’ The small, circular stage lends an intimacy and heat that perfectly suits the antagonistic gerrymandering in the show. The use of screens situated in the upper circle create an invisible stage that lends credibility to the conference setting, with key ‘blocs’ being established. Furthermore, members of the press are given lanyards containing the economic output and position above sea level of a variety of island nations, which the cast then refer to. This creative decision lends an interactive element to the play – which continues with further elements of audience participation – but also demonstrates the severe and still relevant consequences of climate change. 

The breadth of research demonstrated in Kyoto is beyond impressive

Kyoto brings history to life. The events detailed provide rich material for the stage, given the hindsight and dramatic irony afforded to the audience members. Being able to see events through a modern gaze with confirmed science (the veracity of science both objectively and politically is a large theme of the play) increases the tension of the machinations being displayed on stage as we – an audience from the future – have witnessed the very real ramifications of rising global temperature. The breadth of research demonstrated in Kyoto is beyond impressive. Being able to summarise events lasting months into a few key sentences and arguments is a testament to the writers’ dedication to highlighting and excavating the past, rather than purely cannibalising it without any ethical integrity. 

All cast members are to be commended in their ability to provide and maintain the frenetic energy required by conference workings and at times dodgy diplomacy. However, Ferdy Roberts provides a stand-out performance as John Prescott, receiving a hearty chuckle from the audience and providing Kyoto with some refreshing comedic gems. The breakneck speed of the play means it could be beneficial for audience members to watch the performance twice (not that this is a hardship). However, the parallel commentary offered by Pearlman helps to oil the tracks of understanding through his contextualising remarks and sarcastic ad libs. 

Ferdy Roberts provides a stand-out performance as John Prescott

Kyoto plays on three stages. The first is that of global politics, as politicians negotiating public image as well as the minutiae of their party lines. The second is the obvious and literal stage on which the actors perform. Finally, the third stage combines its predecessors and functions as a way of putting Pearlman himself on trial. While he isn’t the main focus of the play, his political career grounds the geopolitical background of the performance within human motivations and (as he claims he stands for) individuality, so as to avoid forgetting the nuances behind seemingly obvious decisions. 

If further proof of the strength and emotional pull of Kyoto is needed, it can be seen in the unanimous standing ovation afforded to the actors on press night.

(Kyoto plays at the RSC Swan Theatre until 13th July 2024.)

Rating: 5/5 

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