Theatre review: Decade

This 9/11 drama neglects the non-western perspective.

In the States 911 is, of course, the number you dial in an emergency. Ironies like this one bubble and cluster in Decade, the theatrical response to the 9/11 anniversary: the "Never Forget" souvenir pins that are "end of line"; the prickly British Muslim who explains "Islam means peace: what the fuck you looking at?"

Decade is the product of 20 or so writers from widely different backgrounds, including Abi Morgan (of The Hour), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and everyone's favourite history don, Simon Schama. Under the steerage of Rupert Goold of Headlong Theatre, the show is a sequence of playlets that unravels in a mock-up of the Windows on The World Restaurant (107th Floor, North Tower), complete with sunny views of Manhattan.

We enter the restaurant-space (which is actually in London's St Katharine's Dock) after a passable imitation of real-life Homeland Security airport checks. The commercial location is more than a little antiseptic in nature, and the actors are forced to work hard for cohesion. Action takes place around (and on) the tables on the restaurant floor, but also behind the glass of a mezzanine level, which chillingly serves as airport walkway, hospital corridor and, of course, prime office space. At one point the performers, in their unexceptional business suits, are trapped, panicking, behind these upper windows. We know that, like Snow White in her glass coffin, they are as good as dead.

Such emotive moments, however, are metered out carefully. Adam Cork's beefy soundtrack similarly resists opening up the throttle of affect and effect. Decade refuses a master-narrative, and instead we are given episodes, or epiphanies, on a whole range of incidental characters and situations, ranging geographically from Guantanamo to Karachi, from waitresses to rhetoricians (both Bush and Bin Laden's speeches are reproduced).

We're shown the office-worker, half in love with the WTC "altar", and still dealing with the shock of watching his office turn to dust like a "sandcastle". The delicately faultless Tobias Menzies manages to look as though he might just crack up like the towers himself. There are the widows' annual commemorative get-togethers, including Charlotte Randle's marvellously brittle Brooklyn termagant who's a fan of Sarah Palin ("she's an idiot but, man, can she wear red"). The widows' scenes are interwoven throughout the night and move backwards through time, to, as it were, the prelapsarian state.

And there are the chancers, the fakers, and the whole industry surrounding the Ground Zero site, part hallowed ground, part real estate. One of the most engaging cameos is the Panamanian who works at the gift shop. He wasn't allowed to be a tour guide, like others with a more legitimate personal involvement, as at the time of the attacks he'd been playing Runescape, "then jerking off". He sleeps with some of his vulnerable customers, but they in turn never come back. He's taken to slipping the "Never Forget" pins in their pockets.

Many of the characters struggle with the collision of the personal with the symbolic, and of memory with history. "I don't want to know what I stand for," says one. Another complains bitterly that 11 September "was my birthday before it became this global tragedy".

The scenes are connected with dance sequences, not all of which comfortably emanate from the moment, but which at their best are stupendous. As Bush makes his "either you are with us or against us" speech, the American people seem literally to mobilise, armed with their cell phones and their newspapers. The flight attendants' safety instruction routine is codified, to a magisterial Rossini soundtrack, into an increasingly frantic and desperate ballet.

Visual leitmotifs also serve to connect the fragments: the characters sport a layer of dust on their shoulders - a sort of deadly dandruff - one woman's eczema makes her flake before our eyes; there is even dust in the Yemeni shopkeeper's milk carton. Rupert Goold shows us fear in a handful of dust.

The material varies considerably, with the verbatim quilted in alongside the scripted. There's even a mini-lecture on Thomas Jefferson and Miltonic ideals, courtesy of the don. Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe's fingerprints were surely all over the searing fugue made up of 9/11 text messages. But elsewhere the red pen could have, should have, been used to axe scenes. The babel of voices may feel appropriate, but too many writers, I suspect, have been indulged in the process. And Decade, though a circumspect, deeply imaginative response, is an entirely occidental one.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder