Fighting Climate Change with Comedy: Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

By Kieran J. Evans

Theatre is a great platform for social commentary and to raise awareness of timely issues. However, it is also a place to celebrate, laugh, and connect with those around us, and ultimately to connect as a society. That being said, what role does humour and satire have in bridging these two functions? Should we use laughter to combat serious social, political, or environmental problems? Time will tell.

In Stephen Carleton’s Griffin Award Winning play The Turquoise Elephant, the problems at hand are climate change, corporate greed, and government inaction in an apocalyptic world where sea levels are rising, and species are on the brink of extinction. Carleton uses absurdism and ridiculous jokes to navigate this perilous planet. The exaggerated characters each have their own delusions on the reality outside their door – which draws attention to the mixed, though often ludicrous responses to crises that threaten all of us.

The Turquoise Elephant is coming to Brisbane in June, showing for a strictly limited season, bringing all of its wit and absurdity with it. Director Lachlan Driscoll describes the play as an “eclectic mix of laugh-out-loud social satire, with huge stakes that sober us right up seconds later”. Plays that do this are arguably some of the most entertaining and impacting.

Using humour to talk about urgent issues, in part, is a great way to cope with, and shed light on, overwhelming subjects; and to reach people without them feeling as if they’re sitting through a lecture on inconvenient truths. However, some would say that humour dilutes, and even trivializes, issues. Certain jokes that were intended to make a statement can in fact offend audiences –and make them switch off altogether.

Is the risk of absurdity in theatre worth compromising the important messages that writers, like Stephen Carleton, are getting at?

Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography.

Theatre of the Absurd has a history of exposing the strange existence of humans. It is a vehicle for which we see characters break down and truly become lost in their own life. But from this display of hopelessness is where comedy emerges – funnily enough – because their purpose and actions no longer carry any meaning. This is the paradox of Absurdist Theatre: we laugh at actions that are seemingly ridiculous, but which are the character’s reality. It is through this tragicomedy that meaning is intended to emerge. However, this is threatened if the on-stage action becomes too far-fetched that audiences remove themselves from the reality underlying the play. This absurdism could let audiences off the hook when it comes to taking accountability and receiving the urgent messages that the writer is saying.

The Turquoise Elephant shows both sides: the ridiculous or meaningless, and the real or honest. Audiences are left with this paradox which forces them to consider their own actions in life. What can I do differently? Am I making a meaningful life for myself? And how dare we laugh at that?

The Turquoise Elephant tickets can be bought here; runs from June 2 to 11, at Studio1 in Yeerongpilly, Brisbane.

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