Our Fragile Home, Salisbury Festival of Ideas

TWO images will remain in my mind from this year’s Salisbury International Arts Festival, and particularly from the middle weekend Festival of Ideas, which had the theme Our Fragile World.

The images are of Gaia, Luke Jerram’s seven metre diameter globe based on NASA images of the planet from the Apollo space mission, and of an aged Ukrainian couple working on their farm, the last inhabitants of the deserted communities near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The images seem both to embody the fragility of the planet and its almost incredible resilience.

Professor Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London and former director of both the Science Museum and the British Antarctic Survey, talked about the play 2071: The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren.

Standing close to the slowly revolving Gaia, below the spire crossing in Salisbury Cathedral, Prof Rapley explained how he worked with playwright Duncan Macmillan to create the play, which was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. The title comes from the year his grand-daughter will be the age he was when he wrote the play.

He showed how the power of storytelling can be used to help make sense of the world and to explore the huge threats and challenges posed by climate change, predicted population growth, soil health and social justice issues,

The script of 2071: The World’s We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren is on the Royal Court website and can be ordered from bookshops.

Across the city, at the Five Rivers Leisure Centre, the focus was on isolation and survival in the multi-media production, Zvizdal [Chernobyl – so far, so close].

This extraordinary show follows Petro and Nadia, a couple who refused to leave their village, when 49,000 people, the entire population of Pripyat and the surrounding communities, were evacuated, after the catastrophic Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history. (It is estimated that eventually around 350,000 people were permanently resettled from the area affected by the explosion and its aftermath.)

The Flemish media company Berlin visited the area many times over five years from 2011 to 2016, filming and recording Petro and Nadia as they survived on their isolated farm, scratching a living from the land, with a dog, a cow and a horse, no electricity, running water or communications, more than 20 kilometres from the nearest shop.

At times there is almost a Sleeping Beauty quality to the film – travelling into this eerie deserted landscape, where scrub and nature have recolonised dozens of towns and villages, the film-makers are metaphorically cutting their way in through the protective thorn jungle, like the prince rescuing Beauty. At other times the viewer is a voyeur, peering uninvited into the lives of two people who made a dogged but reasoned decision not to leave their lifelong home.  “If you’ve got used to living somewhere, then you should stay there,” says Petro.

Gradually, the sheer resilience of the two old people becomes the story – it is impossible to imagine the privations they endure, through the relentless Ukrainian winter and the burning heat of summer. With their timeless country knowledge and skills, their occasional dry humour and their granite resilience, Petro and Nadia have a primal, primeval connection to the land – they are as much part of this damaged-but-recovering landscape as the birds and the trees.

In the final sequence of Zvizdal, on Berlin’s website, Nadia says simply: “Dear is the land where your mother gave birth to you.”


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