KYOTO

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _13th JUL.

June 26, 2024

images © Manuel Harlan @ RSC.

As we see out the sputtering tail end of a general election and parliament dogged by scandals, dodgy advisors, disgraced lobbyists and furious back pedalling on environmental pledges all, it seems a particularly prescient time for the RSC and Good Chance Theatre’s Kyoto to land.

Writers Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, the duo behind the critically-acclaimed The Jungle, reunite with directors Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and Justin Martin (Stranger Things: The First Shadow) for this sobering, timely and incisive recounting of the years leading up to the pivotal Kyoto COP summit of 1997.

On paper, it may not sound like particularly thrilling theatre to essentially bear witness to just shy of three hours of international diplomats and delegates squabbling – sometimes over things as inane as the appropriate use of a semi-colon or question mark, as an Act II free-for-all humorously depicts. Yet, its in the innate, shared humanity that it placed under its lens, and an undercurrent thread of the power of agreement versus the toxifying (quite literally) presence of vested interest that Kyoto finds its voice and theatrical purpose.

It’s all hung around a masterful and absorbing central turn from Stephen Kunken as lawyer-turned-NGO-lobbyist, Don Pearlman. Kyoto opens with the curtain falling on the Reagan years. Pearlman wastes no time in casting the nineties as a glorious heyday compared to the horrors of the contemporary. With the Berlin Wall down and Bush Senior proclaiming ‘a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn’, the scientific and political spheres are turning their attention to a new impending crisis – man’s impact on climate change. Fresh out of serving seven ‘glorious’ years in government, Pearlman finds himself headhunted by OPEC – the ‘Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ – to try and stymy the growing concern and outcry.

“…perhaps one of Kyoto’s greatest strengths is in showcasing how major ethical and existential quandaries can be sunk by, of all things, disagreements on grammar.”

Pearlman sets out to frustrate and essentially nullify a decade of international summits and meetings, from Geneva to Berlin and beyond. It’s here where, after a slightly unhurried start, Kyoto really finds its footing and hits its stride. A shrewd adept at backdoor dealings, twisting ears and a canny ability to root out and exacerbate geopolitical divisions, Pearlman plays his infuriating yet intoxicating merry dance of manipulation. Robertson and Murphy’s book is clearly deeply researched (though they are immediate in having Kunken point out that some artistic license has been taken) and perhaps one of Kyoto’s greatest strengths is in showcasing how major ethical and existential quandaries can be sunk by, of all things, disagreements on grammar.

Early on, Andrea Gathcalian’s spirited delegate of the small island state of Kiribati emphatically and powerfully challenges how rising sea levels will come to spell disaster for both her island, and hundreds of others. Within Pearlman’s web of mistrust and political machinations she falls, however, and even major players such as the US nevertheless water down their promises and wording.

With such a morally nebulous anchor around which the show pivots, all involved do a shrewd job in managing Pearlman’s journey and relationship with the audience. Kunken is, as mentioned, fantastic as the unapologetic, increasingly despairing Pearlman, and the dawning realisation that he is not so much an antihero so much as an outright villain is deftly and carefully charted. By the second Act, it takes the likes of Ingrid Oliver’s dignified but cunning Merkel, and the whirlwind arrival of Blair’s New Labour Britain in the form of Ferdy Roberts’ bullish John Prescott, to start tipping the balance in favour of unity and common good. All the while, Jorge Bosch’s animated, impassioned portrayal of COP President Raul Estrada-Oyuela begins to offer the heart and humanity lacking of our underhanded narrator.

Nancy Crane, meanwhile, gives a wonderful and layered turn as the United States’ delegate, ‘Sue’, who is at times obstinate, sarcastic and flippant. The USA’s inarguable clout is well represented here, and Crane does an admirable job reminding the audience that even in these binary times and in such heated situations, politicians are often varying hues of grey as opposed to explicitly forces of good or evil. Jenna Augen, similarly, does great work as Pearlman’s uncertain wife, Shirley, and it’s telling how even she struggles to find the positives in her husband’s line of work and stance. Augen is particularly moving in a powerful, if slightly overlong, denouement.

“There’s real kinetic energy and electricity in the conference sequences…”

Given Kyoto’s not-insubstantial running time, Daldry and Martin keeps things moving and engaging. There’s real kinetic energy and electricity in the conference sequences, played in-the-round with members of the public filling out some of the COP seats. There’s a surprising amount of comedy in there, too – from the more obvious, such as Prescott’s fist-happy exasperation at the lack of lunch, to some inspired interactions with those lucky enough to be part of the action.

Miriam Reuther’s set certainly makes for a grand spectacle, too – the imposing conference roundtable acting both functionally and as a stage at once. Strips of neon lights frame the RSC’s Swan Theatre as sparks or blossom shower down from above at key moments. Akhila Krishnan and Ian Syme’s video and projection work is bold and present, whilst also frequently steeped in distinctly 90’s low-bit character. It all feels premium, big-budget and striking.

In all, Kyoto manages to take an important, prescient era in modern political history, and craft it into a compelling, often gripping piece of entertainment that ebbs with warning and sobering insight. It’s a powerful, brilliantly acted treatise on the means and methods by which bad faith actors can squander progress, and a timely reminder of the sway and influence lobbyists and oil titans can still lever. Yet, despite being honeyed and overseen by a wonderfully machiavellian creation in Kunken’s Pearlman, Kyoto, much like its titular accord, ultimately sings with the promise of shared humanity and decency, and the power of unity over division, humanity over profit, and the future over just the here and now.

Important, timely theatre that speaks to both the frailty and fleeting nature of geoplitical agreement and the unifying power of compromise at once. The Jungle team have crafted a gripping, tense and sobering dance of debate, disagreement and, ultimately, deeply human drama.

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