This time last week, Edinburgh-based site specific experts Grid Iron were strictly earth-bound. Rehearsals for their Edinburgh International Festival contribution, Leaving Planet Earth, were taking place in a former Morningside church which has been converted into a drama studio. As of this weekend past, however, the company have blasted off to Edinburgh International Climbing Centre in Ratho, which doubles up as New Earth in director Catrin Evans and writer Lewis Hetherington's new play.
The play casts the audience as the final new arrivals from Old Earth, which has been decreed no longer a viable place to live. With mass migration into space seemingly the only alternative, the umbilical cord to the old planet is about to be cut. In its place, the idyllic dawn of a brave new world. Or is it?
Such scenarios have long been the stuff of science-fiction literature and film, from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to hippy sci-fi films such as Silent Running. On stage, however, outside of Ken Campbell's epic 1970s take on Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's the Illuminatus Trilogy and Tom McGrath's little seen 1978 play, The Android Circuit, sci-fi has rarely had any major impact until now.
Unlike much science-fiction, however, there is no apocalyptic scenario In Leaving Planet Earth. Nor is the landscape a dystopian one. What there is in terms of production, at least, is a fully immersive experience for the audience, who must explore their new home even as they consider why they are there.
“Old Earth is in its final stages of life,” says Evans. “It's finished, chaos is reigning, and people are choosing to leave. What we aren't doing is transporting people to the future. It's 2013, but it's an alternative 2013. We've been working on a film which places the new arrivals in the context of where we are in this alternative 2013, and then the audience take a leap onto New Earth, which is where things happen.”
The roots of Leaving Planet Earth date back to January 2010, when Evans read an article by writer and environmental activist, George Monbiot.
“It gestured towards the notion that in a consumerist society like the one we live in, that we're always trying to buy our way out of trouble,” says Hetherington, “and that we think that we're so clever we can solve any problem by buying it, and that we must keep growing to keep on consuming. The language used was all about economic growth, and Monbiot gestured towards this notion that the Earth could become this ultimate disposable item.”
This inspired Evans to think about applying Monbiot's notions to a theatre show.
“At that point I just wanted to explore something about humanity's first migration into space,” she says. “I was always interested more in a migration rather than anything apocalyptic or the world coming to an end after a meteorite hits the Earth. It wasn't about that. It was about choices, and choosing to leave something behind, so I wanted to discover what story was going to be.”
Hetherington and Evans had already been talking about collaborating on something, while Evans had worked with Grid Iron as assistant director, both on the company's pub-set Charles Bukowski compendium, Barflies, and on the swing-park set Decky Does A Bronco. When Grid Iron first approached Evans to propose a project of her own, Evans in turn contacted Hetherington with her idea.
“The idea of it being science-fiction influence came in quite quickly and quite organically,” says Hetherington, “because we were talking about a migration into space, and then we got some actors in a room to see how the characters and story developed.
Evans points out that “We only had two characters in mind at that stage, but we didn't know what their story would be.”
“We're both very passionate about science fiction anyway,” says Hetherington, “and we very quickly got into discussions about what science-fiction, what is fantasy science-fiction and everything else that goes with it. We wanted to embrace all of that, but at the same time ground things in very human stories.”
This is what all good science-fiction has done, be it in H.G. Wells' novels, or Ray Bradbury's short stories, which sometimes aren't recognisable as science-fiction at all.
“One of the best things about science-fiction,” Evans observes, “is the clues that it gives you. You can read something and not know what it means, then a hundred pages later it all clicks into place.”
In the early stages of development, a more intimate approach was mooted, with the idea of just one performer in an attic observatory playing to an audience of ten.
“Then we saw the site at Ratho,” says Hetherington, “and it just spoke to us.”
As with all science-fiction, Leaving Planet Earth sounds a bit closer to home than it at first appears.
“One of the things we're interested in is the idea of living in an opt-in society,”says Evans. “That's why we didn't want to set the play in a dystopian society. These people who've left earth believe that what they're doing is right, and whether people agree with that or not is a different matter, but when the dilemmas on stage are real personal decisions, that's when things become interesting.”
Hetherington is more succinct.
“We're interested in putting a lens on now.”
Leaving Planet Earth begins at Edinburgh International Conference Centre and continues at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, Ratho, August 10th-24th, 8pm.
The Herald, August 12th 2013