I’m sure you’ve heard about the UN report on climate change. It’s bad, even worse than bad. I’m scared, and you should be too. Philip Pullman once wrote that in times of crisis—times like ours—a certain worldview crops up again and again, and here it is writ large in Afloat. The word for this is “gnosticism”. This is the belief that the world we know is completely unreal, completely illusionary. In a surprise twist, we learn that the events of the play—the climate apocalypse that Debs and Bláthnaid must survive—are precisely that.
Two friends become the subjects of a corporate-sponsored VR experiment, one that concludes that “the paralysis of consumers has clear dividends”. Switching between the billionaires’ conference and the simulated apocalypse, the play makes it clear who has caused the crisis and how ordinary people will inevitably pay the price. Like Debs and Bláthnaid, we also live in an imaginary world—there is very little that we as consumers can really do. We are powerless, just as they are powerless. With footage of every wildfire, or with every report of unprecedented flooding, or news of another record-breaking heatwave—everything feels a little more unreal. Greta Thunberg put it best: the climate crisis is an existential crisis.
This may all sound very philosophical and strange. But with the world that we’re heading for, maybe a profound sense of unreality is the only sane response. This was only heightened by watching through a screen—something that the play, intentionally or not, seems to be responding to.
There are moments where Debs and Bláthnaid seem bizarre to say the least, and funny too. But I would have liked to have seen the absurd element developed further. It’s certainly there, for example, when Bláthnaid waxes lyrical on every tourist attraction in Dublin and Debs punctures her fantasies with less-than-pleasant facts. This made me laugh of course, but it felt out of place in a play that centres unreality. It was comic relief for its own sake. For one thing, the exchange seemed a little too level-headed for the apocalypse. Indeed, almost every scene is peppered with facts about emissions, micro-plastics, and rising sea levels. These are all worth knowing of course, but the reality for most people is far simpler—a chronic sense of unease and occasional terror.
I said you should be scared, and so you should be. If nothing else is real, that’s real. As much as I enjoyed the play, I felt that it could have gone further in exploring this. The gnostic element—a natural reflex, you might say—only touches on the new mental landscape that so many people in our generation are entering. If we’re going to see real changes, this must be understood too. The facts and statistics certainly make you afraid, and rightly so, but they alone can’t explore our inner lives.
As for the writing and performances, there are some slightly jarring moments. When Bláthnaid tells us out of nowhere that her anxiety is especially bad today, this seems like an amazingly banal response. Emphatically placed at the end of a long pause, there are many moments like this that make transitioning between scenes a little rough. Such moments consistently obscure the uncanniness in our experiences—as a word, “anxiety” is just not enough anymore. Very few are, and writers have a responsibility to remember this as the climate crisis takes hold. Whilst the performances are good in themselves, they are let down by a lack of nuanced character development. Nevertheless, Afloat remains an entertaining story with an important message.
Afloat is available on demand as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until 29 August.
Words by Finn Haunch.
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