The stage location of this urgent and eccentric play from the production company Fuel is nothing if not dramatic. Here we are in the riverfront grounds of the Master Shipwright’s House in Deptford, on the underside of the Thames’s downward bulge around the Isle of Dogs. The Cutty Sark is a few hundred yards east along the bank, and just beyond it are the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum.
Echoes and emblems of mighty journeys are everywhere in Melly Still’s and Max Barton’s brave new piece. This was a major shipbuilding yard, founded by Henry VIII. Hence we’re in the home reach from which were launched outlandish, empire-expanding ventures to the brim of the known world and beyond.
The place may be too often lumbered with the term “hidden gem,” and yet it is not inaccurate. It closed one hundred and fifty years ago and is now, whether you like or loathe the term, a creative hub for artists and performers. This could hardly be a more fitting environment for a show which unfurls three interwoven stories across the realms of time and space. The simultaneous failing of natural light in the broad London sky and the illumination of the set has the feel of a slow-rising curtain.
At the heart of the work, concealed and revealed like a precious pearl in an oyster shell, is…an oyster. We are, for the moment at least, in the eighteenth century, and this oyster is a prize acquisition by the Royal Society from its polar expedition. The thing is thought to be loaded with mysterious properties of superabundance, hence a vital resource for mankind’s redemption from poverty and want – this in the years just before the industrial revolution. All this is witnessed with intense interest by the young Gretchen of the title.
Meanwhile, back in the present day, we see another young woman, Maisie, trying to stimulate a dodgy commercial venture by livestreaming from the Arctic. And then there is the enigmatic, apparently amnesiac figure of Lulit, half-frozen on an ice rink. How did she get here? And what will happen to her?
If these sound like the components of a richly traumatic dream, well, that is because the play does indeed lead us into the deep and freezing waters of the issue of the day – this day: climate change. Not so much a dream then as a waking nightmare. There are moments when the oyster is presented, in terms of almost spiritual awe, as the potential saviour of a humankind abusing its sources of sustenance to the point of fiery extinction.
What then is the Gretchen question? Well, as Still and Barton explain in their programme note, it derives from the German author Goethe’s famous play Faust, in which the character of the title is asked by the young woman (Gretchen), whom he fancies, whether he believes or does not believe in God. Blunt and non-negotiable, it demands a yes or no answer, and will not be deflected from its purpose by any obfuscations for which the Great Author might reach.
For their part, Still and Barton see a direct, uncompromising parallel between that original Gretchen question and the one now posed by no less a presence than the planet we live on: how do we square humanity’s apparently unstoppable push towards ownership and expansionism with the wreckage and degradation visited on this home of ours by those raging appetites?
Throughout the 90-odd minutes of a passionate and jolting show, a professorial figure seeks, unsuccessfully, to talk us through the phenomena that we are witnessing. Like a self-regarding but second-rate version of Prospero in the confined island kingdom of Shakespeare’s Tempest, he tries and fails to assert his mind over the matter of galloping perdition, whose hooves are already deafening the near horizon. Like so many current eco-warnings – and this play is largely such a creature – the humour arm-wrestles itself between defeat and defiance, and this mighty old Thameside setting, awash with slabs of spent influence, turns mock-heroic before your eyes and ears.
There is fitting music, with a melancholy in its spriteliness, from Second Body – consisting of Max Barton and Jethro Cooke – and brisk, bold direction, choreography indeed, from co-author Melly Still. She is rewarded with fearsomely committed performances from her eight-strong company, with Christopher Saul appallingly funny as the supposedly commanding Burrow, Al Nedjari in perpetual motion as the unput-downable Sporing, and Lauren Moakes as the charismatic and strangely dream-swept girl of the title.
On the opening night, beyond the backdrops and therefore in the Thames, there was a freakish traffic of passing boats – one hundred and fifty, said some estimates – and they were the among the last knockings, for the moment, of post-funereal tributes to the late Queen. By they went, solemn but twinkling, then vanished. A big old valediction, it looked. By this time the sun had long set, not just on the evening, nor on the empire (that went years ago), nor even on the longest reign in our own long history. No, the gathering darkness now had nothing less than the world in its sights. And not a safety curtain to be seen.
Review by Alan Franks
In the 18th century, Gretchen witnesses the Royal Society return from a polar expedition with a mysterious oyster, promising unlimited wealth on the eve of industrial revolution. Present day, Maisie sets out to livestream from the Arctic as part of a questionable brand partnership. Lulit wakes on an ice rink, struggling to remember what happened to her last night.
The Gretchen Question is a new production co-created by Melly Still and Max Barton, featuring live music by Second Body and design by E. M. Parry. Drawing from the history of climate change, it invites us to inquire what the future holds for us.
The Gretchen Question
Co-written by Melly Still and Max Barton
Directed by Melly Still
Designed by E.M. Parry
Lighting designed by Malcolm Rippeth
Music by Second Body
22 September – 2 October 2022