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Nuke Power Play Tests Ethics

This production asks hard questions about our future, writes Elizabeth Fortescue

When Pamela Rabe marched against the Vietnam War at the age of 12, she believed in people power and an optimistic future. But when the respected actor was preparing for her stage role as a retired nuclear physicist, she became keenly aware of the “ever-present anxiety” of today’s youth — mainly about just how long planet Earth can survive humanity’s mistreatment of it.

Young British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children opens next week at the Sydney Opera House, and for Rabe it’s an investigation of a worried world.
Married couple Hazel (Rabe) and Robin (William Zappa) are visited at their dilapidated farmhouse on the English east coast by an old colleague called Rose (Sarah Peirse). Now retired and in their 60s, the trio worked together as nuclear physicists at the nearby nuclear power station.
The long-ago affair between Rose and Robin, which continued into Robin’s marriage to Hazel, contributes to the awkwardness of Rose’s visit.
But an environmental disaster looms more menacingly than a marital one. A recent earthquake and tsunami have left the power station stricken, and contaminated water is on the brink of seeping into the ocean.
Hazel and Robin lost their home to the tsunami and now live just outside the contamination exclusion zone. They run their Geiger counter over their grandchildren’s trike, put up with electricity rationing and seem to be in mutual denial about Robin’s unaccountable nose bleeds.
When Rose arrives, the characters indulge in domestic chitchat about cups of tea and the benefits of yoga. But these quotidian concerns gradually assume monstrous irrelevancy as we realise Hazel, Robin and Rose’s world is teetering on the brink. It’s not until the end of the play that the real reason for Rose’s unexpected visit is revealed, presenting her two old workmates with a moral and ethical dilemma.
Rabe says the play is a young person’s view of the world, and one of its major themes is generational accountability.
“It’s pretty safe to say that our younger generation now views the world in a completely different way than we did at their age,” Rabe says. “We might have had a sense of something looming, but there’s an ever-present anxiety now about the future of this planet that is unavoidable.
“The (young generations) exist constantly with a much keener sense of their own mortality, and the mortality of the world.”
Rabe says she was aware as a teenager of bad things such as the Manson murders happening in the world, but felt “protected” from them. “We were still bathed in the glow of peace and love and ‘it’s all going to be OK’,” she says.
“There’s been this undeniable change since then in terms of a realisation of what we are doing to this little blue orb that were all on, and our younger generation is living and breathing that day in and day out.”
Rabe says Kirkwood never points an accusing finger at older generation, even as she asks: What sort of planet are younger people inheriting?
“She does that with great compassion and humour,” Rabe says. “It’s a very human play. It’s a great play to get you thinking.”

The Children, Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House, until May 19. $81-$108.

Source: Daily Telegraph / 28 March 2018

Photos: Christian Gilles

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