The stage at The Garage is empty but for a teal-coloured yoga ball against the back wall. As the light fades we hear Greta Thunberg’s famous speech to the House of Commons (‘Now we probably don’t even have a future any more’) followed by the sound of a muffled heartbeat. A voice carries through the darkness: ‘For the rest of the hour don’t say anything. But after that, don’t stop.’ This humble request effectively sets the scene for graduating drama student Rohan Gotobed’s ‘Play Before Birth’. This play, produced by Coast to Coast Theatre Company, can only be described as something as rare as an eco-activist prenatal thriller.
Moira (Ellie Martland) comes onstage. She looks out at the audience and presents us with some worrying facts: In the US, each child born adds another 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to its mother’s carbon legacy. The grandchildren of today’s young generation might starve do death on a burning planet. She does not want to seem emotional (‘men don’t listen to emotional women’), but simply wants us to know what we have in store. Which is why, she tells us, she decided to become surgically sterilised. Given how much we now know about the failing environment, if you wish to be a parent ‘you should be arrested for cruelty to children’ according to Moira.
Throughout the play, Moira’s little monologues serve to break up the action onstage. We meet Klara (Rachel Nicholson) who is 21 and pregnant. As her belly grows she grows ever more worried, jotting down her apprehensions in a little turquoise notebook. She is supported by her sister Sophie (Alex Gallacher) who is more light-hearted in her approach to both childrearing and climate change. During Klara’s babyshower the two sisters are visited by Frances, (Caitlin Jacobsen) another young mother who, of course, speaks of nothing but her little cherub-son Joseph.
Then Moira, who turns out to be the sister of Klara’s boyfriend, turns up unexpectedly. Klara, Sophie and Frances, aware of Moira’s life choices, scorn both her and the neatly wrapped present she is carrying (it turns out to contain a black gas mask.) They look at her as though she is deranged when she shouts that ‘womanhood and motherhood are not synonyms!’ However, as the play progresses the four characters all reveal their doubts about themselves and their own intentions. Their conversations and pregnant pauses all hint at the same question: is it even ethical to have children given what we now know?
‘Play Before Birth’ consists of several realistic segments separated by the abovementioned monologues, together with beautiful song from the four actors and more experimental scenes that border on science fiction. Eventually, the scribbles in Klara’s turquoise notebook are read out loud, revealing a dark yet poetical prophecy for the future. Jasmine Savage’s lighting effectively breaks up the different scenes on the simple stage, framing crucial moments in the action.
Rohan Gotobed, who founded Coast to Coast together with Molly Farley and serves as both writer and director of this play (together with assistant directors Molly Bernardin and Ash Strain), deserves much praise for his work. In addition to the sheer originality of this play, Gotobed often exhibits a nice turn of phrase: at one point during a monologue, Moira remarks how men have the power to decide over women’s bodies, but famously cannot multitask and therefore delegate this responsibility to the women themselves. The shifting dynamic between the four women is also elegantly portrayed, and the actors, particularly Gallacher, display some great comic timing.
In a final monologue, Klara describes how her still nameless son was born in November, and that when she looked down at him she thought what all creators think when they look at something new: ‘This time we’ll get it right.’ Despite the play ending on a surprisingly hopeful note, we are presented with a grim vision of our children’s future, and the recurring images of a world consumed by fire and acidic rain does not make for a relaxing hour in the theatre. However, that was hardly Gotobed and Coast to Coast’s intention, and the fact that Extinction Rebellion are handing out acid-green flyers reading ‘ACT NOW’ in the foyer after the performance only serves to emphasise the importance of this student play.