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The Trials: A Cautionary Tale

By Perry Miller
23 August 2022

By Perry Miller

In a month of weather extremes, it seemed apt to go and see a new play that considers our personal responsibility for climate change – and society’s desire for revenge.

The Trials, now on a short summer run (until 27th August) at The Donmar Warehouse, London, is a new play by Dawn King. Set in a dystopian near-future (at one point a teenager wistfully recalls the taste of a now-forbidden bacon sandwich – ‘the saltiness, the ketchup!’ – to her curious, vegan fellow jurors), wealthy polluters are subjected to show trials. 

The drama is centred around a courtroom, where teenage jurors determine the fate of those accused of eco-crimes: anyone who was an adult in 2018, with an above-average salary and a personal carbon footprint over the legal limit, is liable to be arrested, tried and – if found guilty – euthanised. These are the so-called ‘dinosaurs’. The law, applied retrospectively, is proving to be a useful population reduction measure.

A recording of each defendant, given a few minutes to speak, is shown to the jury, before a 15-minute deliberation period takes place. As those on trial seek to justify themselves - ‘yes, we had three kids, but we had an organic veg box delivered every week’ or ‘my publicist wouldn’t pay for train tickets, so I had to take flights’ – the audience laughs awkwardly and the jurors scream ‘greenwashing!’ The term is now flung at individuals, not just the corporates.

It's hard to find a sympathetic character. Not the defendants, whose woeful tales of half-hearted compromise when faced with their desire to consume more and more, seemed pathetic; and not the jurors whose desire to convict wouldn’t have been out of place in revolutionary France. The latter, with the zeal of converts, gleefully sought guilty verdicts, relying on new laws that criminalised past behaviour.

The final of three trials brought before us a woman who had worked for an oil company and who had personally signed off on drilling in the Arctic, while knowing its likely impact. She knew she wouldn’t get away with it, admitted her guilt and volunteered herself for euthansia. Her daughter, it turned out, was the jury leader: in a scene straight from Mao’s playbook, she denounced her mother and sealed her fate.

A bit crude? Yes. A bit preachy? Undoubtedly. But the play, and its cast of young actors, (some of them on the professional stage for the first time), made us feel rightly uncomfortable. Not just about our own carbon footprint, and how seriously we take it (confession: 14 flights myself this year) when it’s all too easy to shift responsibility onto corporations, but what the end game will be as we face up to climate change. In this case, revolution and the end of democracy.

But more than that, it raised issues around the ethics of retrospective legislation and the fairness of the jury system. The frightening lack of knowledge on the part of certain jurors, the bullying and leading that took place and the desire to get a majority verdict ‘so we can all go home’ reminded me of my own jury experience.

The play ends with most of the jurors going to watch the executions of the people they had condemned. They didn’t get their knitting out, but there was more than a hint of the guillotine.