The Lorax is a creature “that speaks for the trees”, wrote Dr Seuss in his 1971 children’s book of the same name. The story was recently adapted for stage by David Greig, and is now enjoying a second run at the Old Vic in London.
In the original tale, an ambitious businessman cuts down an entire forest in order to produce marketable “thneeds”. But by the time he realises the flaw in his plan it is too late: the trees, the animals – and the Lorax who loved them – are all gone, along with the prospect of future profit.
The new play pulses with playful rhyme and soaring, snuffling puppets, and is sure to entertain its audience. But when it comes to tackling climate decline – can a decades-old children’s story still help?
Seuss himself would probably hope so. The story was reportedly inspired by Seuss’s own campaign to save trees outside his San Diego studio from property developers, and went to press not long after the first “Earth Day” in 1970.
Sadly, deforestation is still on the rise; since its publication the Amazon rainforest has declined in size by around 17 per cent, according to the WWF.
And of course, the shrinking of the world’s forests is just one of many threats to today’s miff-muffered environment, the most comprehensive of which is the rise in global temperature caused by the release of greenhouse gas emissions.
Director Max Webster says the story’s criticism of economic “biggering” helps to keep its message fresh.
“The fundamental sense that our entire structure of society is not sustainable in the long term for environmental reasons is something that people have been grappling with – certainly since the 70s – but arguably for hundreds of years before that,” he says. “It’s got even more relevant recently with what’s happened in the Paris climate agreements and Trump’s position on climate change.”
Webster also hopes it will encourage audiences of all ages to “think about what we value in politics; how we think about the world and how we value the world, society, communities and ways of living – beyond just a kind of capital gain.”
The play hints at this expanded challenge with new scenes featuring an attempt to greenwash the thneed-industry, the creation of an insufficiently protected “park”, and a factory occupation by the plucky humming-fish and swomee-swans. At one point, the industrialist thneed-maker even tries to dismiss a health and safety inspector’s concerns as “fake news”.
But is a play the best vehicle for such a story when a film would reach more people?
Webster says the communal experience of play-watching is an important part of the message: “Of course it’s important that as individuals we turn the lights off and try not to take too many flights, and so on,” he says, “but ultimately, individual response is not going to be of a scale that is going to change things. It needs to be about thinking about how we can, as an entire society, radically think our group communal position on this. So sitting in the dark, with a lot of other people having an experience together as a group, feels really appropriate for something that needs group action.”
There are also times at which the story feels dated: its criticism of the un-checked pursuit of growth is as relevant as ever – but renewable energy can now offer benefits to both the environment and the economy.
And yet the creators’ obvious care for our collective future should appeal to big and small in any household. As audiences head out into London’s smogulous smoke, they will hopefully leave rooted with hope – and more aware of the dangers still facing the environment almost 50 years after a Lorax began talking for the trees.
The Lorax is currently showing at the Old Vic Theatre, London.