Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Amy Liptrott
As part of audio-digital venture, Soundstage, the latest play from Timberlake Wertenbaker explores the environment, and the pressures placed on it by the climate crisis.
Wertenbaker, whose credits include Three Birds Alighting on a Field and the Olivier-winning Our Country’s Good, uses her literary-political experience to turn her gaze towards arguably the most challenging period we have faced in recent years.
Set in Scotland, Wertenbaker’s play uses a small cast of authentic Scottish voices. Vivian, a woman living in isolation, returns to her home after collecting firewood, to find she has a guest.
The creature (not fully human, not quite animal), labelled as “The Presence” by Wertenbaker, is not expected. Startled by this apparition, Vivian (played by Georgie Glen) begins to ask quite reasonable questions. Who are you? How did you get into my house? Why won’t you leave?
The Presence (playfully voiced by Saskia Ashdown) is a quizzical and contradictory spirit. Understanding Vivian perfectly, but insisting she is asking the wrong type of questions, The Presence refuses to leave. Moreover, she insists that while Vivian may own the house, she does not own the space on which the house is built. Wertenbaker shifts the tone from Vivian’s initial confusion to a growing sense of threat.
While we are left to imagine the physicality of The Presence, Wertenbaker puts us in no doubt of her motives. The animal world, the natural world, has been forced to make way for industrial progress. The creatures need food, a place to reside. The Presence makes it clear that Vivian’s patch of land, right on the edge of civilisation, is ideal for their needs. She makes it clear Vivian is not being asked to give up her home, but to share.
The fantasy of Who Are You is underpinned by Wertenbaker’s interest in where the environment, globalisation and capitalism intersect. Vivian admits that the last five years have left her feeling unsettled and “disgusted” – the word bursts out of her. The world feels all out of balance. Her middle-class views on property and law are severely tested by The Presence. Urged to “give up enclosures, and open up the door”, Wertenbaker’s reference takes us back to before the Industrial Revolution. Climate damage is not a new phenomenon.
Wertenbaker’s themes of “stealing space”, trespass and theft unnerve us because we are used to hearing them in a colonial context, in particular with regards to America and Australia. An imposition on the land is something we don’t necessarily associate with our own country.
Having written frequently about a sense of dislocation, a longing for home, Wertenbaker’s Who Are You makes that logical step into environmental politics. As The Presence tries to persuade Vivian of the difference between house and home, Wertenbaker’s simply-structured play allows these ideas to develop. A look at the driving forces behind climate change, Wertenbaker’s play illustrates how we got here. An endlessly deferred problem, Who Are You portrays the crisis not in the abstract, but as an urgent, visceral concern.
Available here from 29 October 2021