The carbon web that entangles us all. By Giovanna Dunmall
“Hello, I’m your guide,” a melancholic female voice intones in my ears. “Follow me and everything will be fine.” As haunting music plays in the background, I have the distinct feeling it won’t be.
It’s lunchtime on a sunny and blisteringly cold day in London. Women in heels and men in suits scurry up the escalators and passageways of Bank Tube Station as I embark on an audio tour of London’s financial center, courtesy of my iPod. The award-winning U.K. environmental arts organization Platform calls its 70-minute piece, And While London Burns, a ‘requiem for a warming world’. It’s a piece of music, but it’s also a walking tour. The opera and the walk work together to build a narrative about love, consumption…and global warming.
“We’re going to walk together through the web of institutions that extract oil and gas from the ground, feeding the global economy, fuelling our lives, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” says my guide. In particular, we are to “track the scent of BP, British Petroleum, or Beyond Petroleum,” the world’s second largest oil company and the largest company in the U.K.
As I walk up escalators, down streets, under bridges, and across office walkways I am soon introduced to the other two protagonists of this operatic audio adventure.
The unnamed protagonist is a harried fund manager (played with intensity and menace by actor Douglas Hodge) who is enslaved to a system he no longer comprehends or condones. His former fiancée, Lucy (Deborah Stoddart), is an accomplished insurance analyst who traded her job, life, and love for a secluded “off-the-grid” eco hideaway on a cliff top in Cornwall.
Months after she disappears, Lucy sends her ex a postcard. “It’s not knowledge we lack,” she writes. “What’s missing is the courage to understand what we know.” The opera’s three acts—Fire, Dust, and Water—bring this dilemma to life, dissecting the causes and symptoms of our oil-dependency.
Act 1 is the fierce political diatribe; Act 2 ends with the narrative’s anti-hero suffering a meltdown; Act 3 is tinged with regret and harks back to London’s Great Fire of the 17th century.
But while the piece does not shy away from polemic, it is still, first and foremost, a walking tour, and a brilliantly devised one. As I am lead through this dense square mile of London (“Stop, see the gap in the black marble wall on your right. Step into and it start climbing the stairs”), I am accompanied by a cacophony of sounds. The guide’s tapping heels, people’s passing voices, excerpts from TV and radio newscasts, the buzz of planes flying overhead and the roar of traffic in my ears conspire to make it impossible to distinguish where the theatrical experience ends and the real-life cacophony begins.
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