Kyoto: “intense and captivating”

Jessica Harris enjoys the RSC’s take on climate change.

The issue of climate change is one which is increasingly gripping global attention. Nevertheless, the idea of using an international conference on our changing climate as the basis of a theatrical drama is a courageous one. And the RSC’s production of Kyoto manages to turn the historical COP 3 (Conference of the Parties), held in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997, into intense and captivating theatre.

Kyoto takes as its focus the real-life character of Don Pearlman (brilliantly played by Stephen Kunken), a lawyer who acted on behalf of the Climate Council, a body firmly opposed to the development of a climate protocol. Pearlman is used as a type by playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson to represent the body of lobbyists who attended Kyoto on behalf of the oil industry. However, his character is given weight and depth by the play’s inclusion of his relationship with his wife, Shirley (played by Jenna Augen). Over the years leading up to COP 3, Pearlman frequently tells her that the science concerning the effect of human behaviour on climate isn’t conclusive. As she listens to what others have to say, she begins to draw her own conclusions.

The production’s staging is a round conference table of huge proportions. Around this, states and blocks of states debate, argue and, ultimately, come to an agreement. Towards the end of the prescribed time allocated for the conference senior ministers fly in – we are reminded of the carbon emissions of each flight – allowing for wonderful cameo appearances by John Prescott, Angela Merkel and Al Gore.

Whilst national delegates from countries and blocks of countries are also types, conference chair, Argentinian Raúl Estrada-Oyuela (played with great stage presence by Jorge Bosch), known to everyone simply as Raúl, is presented as a thoroughly flesh and blood character. Funny and personable, he is above all determined to see an outcome to the conference. Dark humour comes to the fore as Prescott advises Raúl of the benefit of diplomacy by exhaustion. Whilst Raúl takes this advice and goes for a nap, the other delegates long for proceedings to be over. On his return, he is able to hammer them into submission through using his gavel and daring them to put up any more opposition.

The pedantic mechanics of the conference will have had a familiar ring for many who spend too long in meetings, with seemingly endless discussion over single words, whether text should be within parentheses, or whether a comma or a full stop should be used. Once again, humour is to the fore. and when delegates revert to their native languages since the interpreters have all gone home, the fallibility of international arrangements is fully revealed.

The quality of research and writing by playwrights Murphy and Robertson is excellent, as is the focus brought to the production by Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. Whilst the events played out involve world leaders and are of global significance, the individuals at the heart of them are recognisable and relatable. The production is also an important reminder of the fact that progress in solving the impending climate crisis still has a long way to go.

Kyoto was co-produced and commissioned by Good Chance. It is on at the RSC until 13th July. For further information visit

Pics – Manuel Harlan.