On 6 July 1988, 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, the Piper Alpha oil platform was engulfed in a series of explosions which killed 167 people. Nearly 35 years on, Aberdeen-based artist and poet, John Bolland, retells and reflects on the disaster in Pibroch.
Based around the central question “What would you do if you found yourself on a burning platform?”, the parallels between the literal platform of Piper Alpha and the surface of our planet are explored through this multimedia production. Criticism of those in power, be it the health and safety organisations that could have helped prevent the disaster, or present-day governments is stark and necessary.
The audience enters the auditorium to an asymmetric stack of lighting rigs, surrounding a central screen with the definition of the improvised pibroch musical form, whereby an initial theme is repeated with increasing ornamentation and complexity. This is demonstrated by Fraser Fifield, who goes on to play a variety of instruments in the pibroch style around Bonnard’s poetry to punctuate and bookend segments. Creative use of the pipes to act as a blowing wind and other techniques add to the soundscape of the show.
Over the course of the show, a variety of thoughtfully selected images accompanies the poems and music played to recount the events and impacts of the Piper Alpha disaster.
The emotive intensity of the piece is apparent with the odd stumble in delivery, but that can be excused given the urgency of the climate crisis. It is well worth staying after the performance for the post-show Q&A to learn more about Bolland’s former career in the oil and gas sector, and the other inspirations behind the piece. Most of the audience at this particular performance stayed behind and spoke of how moving the show was.
Some highlights (albeit sombre ones) include vignettes on the topping of learning to swim ahead of the coming flood and a list of the deceased represented by their hometowns, which could also foreshadow a memorial to the coastal towns which will be the first to succumb to rising ocean levels.
As more shows about the climate crisis are produced and performed, it is important to create work that doesn’t downplay the severity of our potential future but also serves as a call to action. In Bonnard’s own words, he seeks to use “compassion” as the primary emotion to engage his audience, and it is good to see this attempt to diversify from the doom and gloom that may alienate those watching.
By focusing on the global-level crises through the lens of a single event, and the ripple effect on communities across Scotland and beyond, Holland has created a helpful piece of theatre to facilitate conversations about how we prevent further disaster. While not for the faint-hearted or those prone to acute climate anxiety, this is necessary viewing for all.
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