Three defendants stand trial for their contributions to the climate crisis. Their reasons (or excuses) receive knowing laughs from the audience – ‘I bought organic!’ ‘We recycled!’. Others get more understanding, like how a video call can never replace the feeling of holding a family member close. (COVID is never mentioned). The jurors are all young people. Some of them don’t even know what words like deliberate or retrospect mean. Still, as those most affected by the climate crisis, they are deemed best placed to deliver justice – or revenge.
But if not them, then who? Do young people now face a double burden of responsibility, to both mitigate the effects of the climate crisis and execute climate justice? Are both the ageing ‘dinosaurs’ and the young jurors guilty of handing out death sentences – the former to a generation, the latter to individuals?
The Trials tackles these tricky questions, forcing us to traverse the spectrum of responsibility ourselves. Its cases explore whether individual employees should be held accountable for business flight emissions, and to what extent these adults were victims of capitalism. Dawn King’s near-dystopia is so dark, and so successful, because it speaks to what is happening right now. Extensive worldbuilding isn’t necessary. The testimonies are haunting because they are so honest – ‘I worked for an oil company, of course I knew’.
Designers Georgia Lowe and Nina Lowe transform the Donmar into a court-cum-classroom. The testimonies are delivered in tandem, both live on stage and shot in black and white above the balcony. The grainy video nods to how the cases – and executions – are streamed online.
The rest of the picture comes in a few subtle references to the Critical Period, new climate laws, and the rapid response Climate Defence Force. Bacon is illegal. Some suffer asthma from the pollution. And they all poke fun at their predecessors’ meaningless sustainability awards. There’s a delicious irony in having children call out their parents’ for raising children, as a ‘total waste of resources’.
Neon raves and slightly-futurised names aside, the cast remain kids – for some of whom, snow and aeroplanes are subjects of fantasy. Their world is more inclusive, a place where people express their pronouns without prompt, and get gender-neutral toilets as standard. The cast excel as a true ensemble, no one overshadowing the other.
References to the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi Germany challenge how progressive this future really is. Like them, these trials began with the clearest offenders – politicians and businesspeople. But we join as they’ve been extended to the population (above eighteen, and the average income). Execution is euphemised as euthanasia. And the jury has just fifteen minutes to decide, due to their large number.
The Trials too is not without pacing problems. It’s slightly too long, though without a break, we get a more claustrophobic, urgent tone. The predictable plot twist and underdeveloped romance subplots could be skipped, to delve into the ominous ‘them’ who have asked to run the trials – presumably the adults, who are really still in control.
By contrast, this production has activism in its roots. Many of the cast make their professional stage debuts at the Donmar, which has engaged thousands of young people in development. Accompanying the production is a podcast which explores the potential for climate-conscious theatre.
Indeed, much of The Trials is self-referential, asking how much art can really change the world, or even individual behaviour. (Even in this new world, writers are famous, and playwright aren’t). I may have sat puzzling its cases, its story I have never heard either on or off stage. But the older man next to me snored softly in his seat. I leave wondering whether The Trials will affect those who need hear its urgent message most.
Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.