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Randall Martin on Green Theatre Today

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Jan 21, 2022 at 10:55 PM in Articles of Interest

On January 12th, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene project leader Randall Martin participated in a panel on Shakespeare and Green Theatre hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, alongside CA collaborators Katie Brokaw and Paul Prescott. Today, the CA blog presents a full transcript of Randall's, alongside the Trust's freely available recording of the entire panel conversation. 

“Green Theatre Today: from ecocriticism to post sustainability” 

Thanks very much Paul [Edmundson], for your gracious introduction and for suggesting this research conversation today, and also to Julie [Howells] and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for making it happen. And many thanks to everyone from near and far for joining us. 

I’d like to explore the two topic questions of our conversation from three perspectives. To recall the questions, they are:

  • How can Shakespeare speak to our current climate emergency? 
  • How does our approach to this question change the ways we stage and watch the plays? 

In my first section I’ll address these questions by talking briefly about their scholarly background in ecocriticism. My second section will introduce the eco-theatre project I am leading which incorporates the two questions. And finally I’ll think about what our project during the past year of performances has taught us. I’ll frame that journey through the particular thematic lens of resilience. This section will also consider how near- or actual social breakdowns caused by the accelerating impacts of global heating are shifting conceptual and ecotheatrical reframing of our topic questions and possible eco-theatrical responses. 


Shakespeare has spoken to environmental sensibilities in every era, and especially in the post-Romantic period, because of his extraordinary attention to the natural world and human interactions with it. Scholars began thinking about those relationships in terms of twentieth- and twenty-first-century climate-change and other environmental problems through the field of Ecocriticism. 

Shakespeare ecocriticism is research and writing that discovers how today’s environmental conditions originate in early modern England and are reflected through in the plays and poems. Here I’ll mention three of its conceptual pathways: 

One begins in environmental history. Ecocriticism traces the sources of some of today’s greatly magnified crises to early modern uses of the natural world.  The prime antecedent for contemporary climate change is the shift of energy generation from wood to coal. It powered the first wave of the Industrial Revolution in Shakespeare’s time, spurred competitive economic nationalism, and produced unprecedented visible effects, such as urban air pollution and degraded farmland. 

Ecocriticism also rediscovers Shakespeare’s critiques of ecologically destructive modes of consumer culture. These were founded on the emerging capitalist fantasy of limitless extraction of land, water, and enslaved human resources to sustain ever-expanding economic growth and profits. A leading indicator of these trends was deforestation of English woodland and overseas exploitation of New World forests, represented respectively in The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest

A third pathway of ecocriticism lies in identifying early modern analogies with today’s environmental crises. The most celebrated example in terms of climate change is Titania’s speech about topical storms and flooding in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.81-117. These were the devastating effects of what is now called the Little Ice Age, when the earth’s northern hemispheric climate cooled over 150 years or so, reaching its “coldest” point just after Shakespeare’s lifetime.  
In sum, the purpose of ecocriticism is to generate fresh readings of Shakespeare’s work that reconsider nature as an active agent, helpful or antagonistic, in human culture. This scholarship carries over into applied ecocritical theatre, or ecodramaturgy. 


Randall Martin on Green Theatre Today

In 2018, Evelyn O’Malley, who teaches in the Department of Drama at the University of Exeter, and I co-edited a special issue of Shakespeare Bulletin which invited theatre-makers and critics to contribute essays about adapting Shakespeare to reflect local climate-change impacts in the Anthropocene. The ironically named Anthropocene refers to the now planetary scale of human exploitation of nature and terraforming of the earth for short-sighted interests. The Anthropocene’s abuses have also lit the fuse of the Sixth Extinction, a radical decline in global biodiversity, now in progress.  

Essays by Rob Conkie, Jennifer Mae Hamilton, Miriam Kammer, Gretchen Minton, Sharon O’Dair, Evelyn O’Malley, and Rebecca Salazar address the lack, at that time, of eco-Shakespeare performances, and they explored ways in which theatre practitioners could make ecological relations and environmental politics motivating concerns of twenty-first century theatre productions. This groundbreaking collection outlined a hands-on programme for the eco-theatre project I am now leading, named Cymbeline in the Anthropocene.

Its environmental activism is embodied in creative adaptations of the playwright’s late tragicomic romance, Cymbeline, in site-specific productions around the world. Currently there are eight theatre companies on five continents contributing to the project. They comprise a mix of student, community, and professional theatre-makers. Cymbeline in the Anthropocene’s research website, its manager, researcher, and blog contributor Rebecca Salazar, and its team meetings are all supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

After more than a year of delays because of pandemic theatre closures, four productions were launched in 2021 by the following companies: 

  • La Trobe University Drama Department students in Melbourne, Australia, directed by Rob Conkie;
  • The Willow Globe theatre in Powys, Wales, directed by Sue Best and Phil Bowen;
  • Montana Shakespeare in the Parks in Bozeman and other towns throughout Montana, directed by Kevin Asselin and dramaturged by Gretchen Minton;  
  • Shakespeare in Yosemite, in Northern California. Because of Covid 19’s closure of the National Park, the company made the ambitious decision to pivot from a stage performance to a feature-film. Katie [Brokaw] and Paul [Prescott] will be talking about this brilliantly inventive and socially inclusive film after my talk.    

Each participating company represents its local climate-change challenges through ecodramaturgical adaptations of Cymbeline. Like all participating companies, they mobilise Shakespeare’s global reputation to tell new stories about today’s crises. 

Staging ecologically conscious stories is a crucial part of the cultural work of environmental activism. We hear daily in the news about climate-change-aggravated wildfires, disappearing polar ice sheets, and poisoned rivers, lakes, and food. Each year brings new record levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and global heating records. We know we must ditch carbon-fueled economics, Pavlovian consumerism, and industrial farming to protect the next generations of human and non-human animals. 

But to motivate real change, playwrights also know that public audiences need to feel the urgency of Anthropocene dangers in relatable and human subjects and their moving personal dilemmas. Shakespeare’s stories and characters provide these imaginative and emotional bridges. We know from parallel cultural shifts taking place now, like the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Rights movements which have made social justice and inclusion artistic priorities in all the performing arts, that eco-theatrical Shakespeare can also fire people’s imaginations and touch their awareness of environmental and socially equitable alternatives to greenwashed business as usual.   

The importance of creating new cultural narratives partly answers the question I am often asked: why Cymbeline for such a project? It doesn’t seem to be an obvious “green” play like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a “blue” one like Pericles or The Tempest. Our website has a lot to say about why Cymbeline is an apt choice, but here I’ll mention just three points:  

First, Cymbeline is a play of notorious extremes and excesses. Its scenes swing between intense grief and ecstatic joy, physical disgust and erotic titillation, weird implausibility and intriguing queerness. The mental and emotional agility demanded of actors and spectators to ride out these swerves creates in-the-moment reflections of the climate-change volatility we are experiencing (to say nothing of pandemic stresses). In live physical performance, and especially in the exposed outdoor conditions of participating productions in Montana and Wales, Cymbeline suggests behavioural improvisations we are all discovering to negotiate the Anthropocene’s ever closer emergencies.    

A second reason for choosing Cymbeline is the range of its locales. The play’s cities, rivers, harbours, plains, plains, forests, and mountains make it attractively open to topographic appropriation by local productions almost anywhere. Its characters experience this topographic diversity in sometimes hostile, sometimes welcoming ways, and this too speaks to the unsettling physical and existential impacts of today’s climate crisis.   

A third point is that Cymbeline’s notoriously complicated and improbably resolved plotlines analogise some prominent climate-change and Covid-19 memes. Because my time is limited, I’ll zero in on just one of these: the resilience represented by Innogen (check out our website for many more themes!). Her travails epitomise the conventionally heroic virtues of strength, courage, and adaptability in the face of physical dangers and haunting despair. In conquering these challenges, she becomes an emblem of idealized British resilience in the face of self-inflicted near-catastrophes--it’s not for nothing that Cymbeline has been called the Brexit play. 


This romance profile is largely the way I imagined Innogen when conceiving our project. And actors in our productions this year have delighted audiences with her extraordinary endurance and empathy, and revelled in her capacity to become a contemporary example of inspiring hope under psychological and environmental distress.   

But this year’s performances also took place in the contexts of unprecedented environmental disasters, the infuriating failure – yet again! – to take substantial action at the COP 26 talks, and a growing public and media consensus, intensified by pandemic anxieties, that the real effects of climate change are a local and personal, not a distant danger, and that we are heading for worse.  

Into the third decade of the twenty-first century, I think it’s fair to say that our evolving collective outlook about Anthropocene futures, especially among young people, is becoming bleaker. And this new abnormal is reshaping the way Cymbeline in the Anthropocene speaks to us in 2022, and about how eco-Shakespeare in performance will be reconceived and redesigned in the coming years. 

Devastating atmospheric and geophysical tipping points are now almost certainly inescapable. Only their liveable severity remains unknown. This gloomy prospect supports predictions of scientific and social “collapsologists,” who argue that subsistence emergencies, in the form of food shortages, destruction of homes, and health insecurity will force people into new mental habits and practical behaviours of survival in the coming decades.

This is not to say the Four Horsemen are just around corner. But our current multiplying calamities compel us to re-evaluate the significance of Cymbeline and other Shakespeare plays as eco-contemporary theatre. Cymbeline is now seeming less a play of hard-won ecological and multilateral peace-making, and more a post-sustainable mapping of what Jem Bendell and Rupert Read call “deep adaptation” in their 2021 book of the same title

To think about this existential pivot in terms of my touchstone theme of resilience, deep adaptation, according to Bendell and Read, is first of all about making tough-minded decisions about what we need and value most, and must defend strenuously, in a world buffeted by social and political breakdowns caused by climate havoc. Innogen’s independent and fiercely principled decision to value Posthumus, flawed as he is, over the narrow Anthropocene ambitions of her father and the Queen might highlight these new higher stakes of resilience.

Randall Martin on Green Theatre Today


Bendell and Read propose three more categories of deep adaptation that also seem suggestive for reframing future eco-theatrical Shakespeare. Holding on to essential values also involves letting go, or Relinquishment, of harmful prejudices and practices that compromise long-term survival and flourishing. Again just in terms of Innogen, this implies her letting go of racialized views of Africans derived from her privileged court upbringing. 

The third of Bendell and Read’s four R-words is Restoration, for example of environmental and animal ethics that have been degraded by commodity capitalism. To survive on a post-sustainable planet, it is imperative for humans to rediscover and rebalance our co-evolutionary dependence on wild and domestic animals. Here the Innogen analogy might be the animal-human kinships she unexpectedly discovers in Wales. 

The fourth R-word is Reconciliation through empathetic and/or pragmatic forgiveness as we experience our common vulnerability and mortality through the uneven breakdowns to come. Innogen’s equivalent encounters on her harrowing journey to Milford Haven clarify why she ultimately pardons her dickhead of a husband. They might also point to what science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson recently suggested in an interview with the CBC: for rich countries to make the radically ecological decision to pay authoritarian petro-states to keep their coal and oil permanently in the ground. That proposal might also find an analogy in King Cymbeline’s surprise reversal of his previous narrow refusal to pay tribute to imperial Rome.

In our evolving world-view of erratic but now virtually inevitable environmental and social collapses, other Shakespeare plays besides Cymbeline could provide fresh insights about how to survive and reorganise broken worlds. There are obvious candidates in the tragedies such as Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Macbeth, which have already been scouted for post-sustainability and post-truth dramaturgy. But what about Henry VI Parts Two and Three, King John, and Timon of Athens? Contemporizing Green Theatre means experimenting with these less usual suspects, and doing so in concert with deep adaptation as well as sustainable material practices of theatre production.