The Heretic

MTC: Richard Bean's play about climate change never successfully merges its disparate elements of comedy, domestic drama, and agitprop.
The Heretic
In The Heretic, Noni Hazlehurst plays Dr Diane Cassell, an acerbic expert in sea level rises at the Earth Sciences department of a Yorkshire university, and the target of death threats from a shadowy eco-terror organisation known as the Sacred Earth Militia because of her opposition to claims of anthropogenic global warming. When her studies suggest that sea levels are not in fact rising, despite claims to the contrary, Cassell is pressured by her boss and ex-lover, Professor Kevin Maloney (Andrew McFarlane) to withhold publishing her findings least she endanger a lucrative upcoming sponsorship arrangement their university is in line to receive.

Simultaneously, Cassell must cope with Phoebe (Anna Samson), her highly strung, anorexic daughter who’s prone to calling her a “fascist”, and an ideologically committed but feckless student, Ben Shotter (Shaun Goss) who frets about his farts contributing to the greenhouse effect. An icy Human Resources Manager, Catherine Tickell (Katy Warner) and an aggressive ex-marine turned security guard, Geoff Tordoff (Lyall Brooks) further complicate proceedings, although Warner’s character only appears in one scene, and Brooks is given little to do other than stride around the stage making occasional dire pronouncements and switching off lamps meaningfully.

The thinness of all the characters, save for the central role of Cassell, is one of several flaws in this laboured and strident work by UK playwright Richard Bean, which never successfully merges its disparate elements of comedy, domestic drama, and agitprop. Billed as a ‘funny, provocative and heart-warming family drama’, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Heretic instead comes across as forced and flabby, with endless blackouts between scenes drawing out the already overlong running time and detracting from the drama and occasional laughs generated on stage.

Bean’s portrayal of Generation Y, in Phoebe and Ben, is one of the play’s most frustrating components; at no point do these two-dimensional constructs ever feel remotely like real characters, a perception which was not aided by Samson and Goss’s forced accents on opening night.

Equally frustrating is that there is no real sense of risk, no drama, no tension at any stage of proceedings, no matter how many melodramatic curve-balls Bean lobs on stage, though one very funny scene involving a toy polar bear works well, perhaps in part because it references Hazlehurst’s previous career as a Playschool presenter. A hysterically-pitched penultimate scene throws everything from incipient death to a helicopter into the mix, while the play’s final scene wallows in entirely artificial sentiment.

Also disappointing is the play’s engagement with the facts and politics of climate change. Bean’s ‘revelations’ about allegedly botched or deliberately distorted science – most notably around sea level rises in the Maldives, and a laboured examination, in the second half of the play, of hacked emails purportedly revealing that scientists have faked their figures – rely on outdated and incorrect information, and when Bean’s characters are convey such misinformation, they do so in a way that’s dramatically inert and awkwardly expository. As propaganda exercises go, The Heretic is even less convincing scientifically than it is dramatically.

Director Matt Scholten makes his mainstage debut with this MTC production. It’s a shame he hasn’t found something more intelligent and engaging to work with, though to his credit he keeps the pace moving as best he can, and successfully concentrates on the play's more comedic aspects. Hazlehurst is excellent and McFarlane plays an amusing drunk well. Shaun Gurton’s set is also well realised, and Jethro Woodward once again proves a first class composer with his evocative and engaging sound design.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Heretic
By Richard Bean
Director: Matt Scholten
Set Designer: Shaun Gurton
Costume Designer: Esther Marie Hayes
Lighting Designer: Lisa Mibus
Composer/Sound Designer: Jethro Woodward
Assistant Director: Katy Warner
Cast: Lyall Brooks, Shaun Goss, Noni Hazlehurst, Andrew McFarlane, Anna Samson and Katy Warner

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
May 12 – June 23

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Twitter: @richardthewatts