On Monday, a day of civil disobedience kicks off around the world. It will be led by climate change activists aiming to bring maximum non-violent disruption to civic life. And among those converging on Parliament Square, London, will be a playwright and a troupe of actors dressed as biblical figures: Noah, a parade of animals (going in two by two, of course), and even God himself.
They might, on the face of it, look out of place and maybe even a little comical among the protesters and their placards: Noah’s wife’s dress has a touch of Wag about it, while God will be rocking a sharp white suit with his halo. There will be a crew of townspeople there, all readying themselves for a contemporary enactment of a medieval mystery play.
Mrs Noah is April De Angelis’s riotous retelling of the biblical flood story, starring Ade Adepitan as God and Naomi Paxton as Mrs Noah. But, far from being out of keeping with the day, this Christian tale of rising waves, endangered animals and near extinction of the human race could be the original “climate disaster” warning.
“It is about extinction,” she says. “There is no bigger story.”
De Angelis is a force of nature, as voluble, witty and rebellious as her work. A seasoned playwright and librettist, her dramas overlap with her activism, from her 80s entry point into theatre when she joined a women-only resistance group called Re-Sister (she chortles at the pun now) to her 1993 drama, Playhouse Creatures, set in the 17th century and exploring the moment when women were allowed to perform on stage.
A desire to place women’s lives at the heart of her stories runs through her work, and Mrs Noah is no exception. In De Angelis’s rebooted mystery play, Noah’s wife is a rebel and upstart, refusing to leave her group of female friends for her place on the ark.
De Angelis did not need to invent Mrs Noah’s rebellion: “I had read the Chester Mystery Plays many decades ago and remembered that she refused to get on the ark in that version. It surprised me to reread it and realise that the writer, rather than being in service to the dogma of the church, was really getting inside Mrs Noah’s head.”
Paxton feels that her character’s refusal is based as much on her political idealism as her loyalty to her friends. “It won’t solve the problem for Mrs Noah to save herself and her family in the ark. The problem remains, and she would only be moving away from it. She feels it’s an issue for everyone and that she can’t escape it.”
It was last autumn that De Angelis had the idea to stage the biblical flood while she was at a meeting with members of Extinction Rebellion, the UK-based climate movement that counts Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman, Naomi Klein, and George Monbiot among its supporters.
She joined the group after coming across a Facebook post. “I was in a low-level panic,” she says, “and when I read the post it went to high-level panic. I wanted to do something. I was numb and shocked and frightened. I felt ineffectual and without power. Writing this play changed that.”
Now that politics appears so broken, she says it may be the case that the arts are becoming “the new politics” for younger generations. It’s certainly a great meeting place for the young to collaborate with other generations: the demographic of Extinction Rebellion ranges from millennials to people of her age. (She is 58.)
De Angelis has also written a short duologue – an encounter between two scientists from opposing ideological camps that features bird songs – that will be acted out on street corners as a piece of guerrilla theatre with an eco-message. And, having been commissioned to write a play for the Royal Exchange, Manchester, she is thinking of ways to tell another climate story.
The biggest challenge, for her, lies in turning the story of our planet’s destruction into compelling drama. Environmental disaster does not lack the dramatic elements, nor heart-wrenching personal stories. It’s just a case of rendering them in drama effectively. She recalls the divided critical opinions over 2071, a 75-minute talk by the scientist Chris Rapley (co-written with Duncan Macmillan) at the Royal Court, London, in 2014, which some said just wasn’t theatre. “I think he did a good job. There should not be one type of theatre – as long as it engages the audience and as long as it’s not preaching, because people don’t like to be preached to.”
Adepitan agrees: “I travel all over the world as part of my job, and I’ve seen the devastating impact climate change is having on communities in Africa whose homes are becoming deserts as a result of global warming. We have to make sure as many people as possible understand how urgent an issue this is, and drama is a powerful and effective way to get to get this message across.”
What is striking about Mrs Noah is the humour, song, rhyme and music that has been added to the climate message. God, frustrated by the town’s blindness to ecological danger, says at one point: “Don’t you read page six of the Hlcarpenter.com? The end of the world is coming.”
There are plenty of other such moments. De Angelis wanted to insert enough laughs and winking contemporary references to catch the attention of the crowd in Parliament Square. This is essentially street theatre, she says. It must reach out and grab its viewer.
• Mrs Noah will be staged at 6pm on 15 April in Parliament Square, London, as part of Extinction Rebellion.