‘Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, 2015 production. Photo by Manuel Harlan
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The dangers of “biggering”: why Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax is as relevant as ever

The story’s adaptation for stage is a timely reminder in an era of climate change.

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.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”