New Atlantis: Immersive theatre lays bare climate dilemmas

Scientists and actors unite to create a fun, interactive fable about the choices posed by climate change

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

By Sophie Yeo

A man scans my hand on a screen as I walk into the room.

People unnervingly dressed in long white coats mill around in front of a stage, while on the multiple storeys of the glass building I can see scientists of the future marching along the corridors.

“It’s a bit like walking into a cult,” says my flatmate, whom I’ve persuaded to watch New Atlantis with me – billed as an “immersive theatre project” about climate change policy and science.

This turns out to be a fairly accurate assessment of the strange and fascinating experience that begins to unfold.

The year is 2050, and we are in the headquarters of New Atlantis – the organisation that replaced the United Nations after it collapsed due to infighting and discord.

Climate change has got seriously bad. Miami has been evacuated and London is under a water curfew. There’s no Arctic summer sea ice and some small island nations have sunk under rising seas.

These are some of the challenges that New Atlantis has to deal with. Nonetheless, while science has advanced, humankind has not entirely learnt from the errors of its ways. There are some who would mine the Antarctic for its resources. Beyond the cosmopolitan world of London, many still run their cars on fossil fuel.

As it turns out, I am an agent of New Atlantis. This means that its problems are my problems – and a great big one has just arrived on the doorstep. The health of its long serving secretary general has declined, and she announces her resignation with immediate effect.

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

Unfortunately, 35 years of progress hasn’t led to the reform of mind-bending international bureaucracy.

There are three departments within New Atlantis: Defence, Industry and Reform. We – the agents – must choose one of them to lead us into a better future.

Each party has its own set of policies. Industry promotes solutions such as harvesting water from Mars, Defence is working on monitoring the overall state of the world, while Reform is set on changing patterns of behaviour.

Sound confusing? It is. Luckily, we are given an hour to roam around the labs of New Atlantis, speaking to the scientists from the various departments about their research and why we should vote for their leader.

This is an opportunity to speak to real life scientists – assembled from the real life labs of UCL – about the research that they are undertaking on climate change. We learn about algae biofuels, Mars monitoring robots and floating islands. Sometimes it is hard to separate fact from fiction.

We are also able to question them about who should get our vote in the New Atlantis election? Each tells us we should vote for them: apparently, there is definitely no way – not ever – that the three different departments could work together. I sense a moral emerging.

There is a fourth and forbidden way. I discover it in the shape of a secret dissident posing as a UCL scientist. He is from Generation Alpha – a youth protest movement with no policies but plenty of fire that has infiltrated New Atlantis.

We have been warned of their presence in advance, and told not to confuse revolutionary passion with the wisdom of age: there is no way that Generation Alpha can be part of the New Atlantis system. The didacticism is coming on thick and fast. After an hour of meandering around the rooms, we return to vote, and actors return to the script.

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

Pic: Andy Franzkowiak

The show amounts to an interactive fable that is heavy on science, policy and fun. It is helped on its way by an engaging cast of scientists and actors who guide us through the technological and moral dimensions of keeping the planet in a liveable condition.

While New Atlantic doesn’t provide the answers – or even the possibility for a neat conclusion – on the subject of climate change, it clearly lays the options on the table.

New Atlantis is showing from 19-25 January at the The Crystal, Royal Victoria Docks, London.

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