Emperor Fukushima at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the conclusion to Presence's Festival Season in 2016. For actor Tom Freeman it was a returning. Here he writes of these homecomings, legacy and the power of stories and unbridled energy.
In many ways, participating in Presence Theatre’s performance of Emperor Fukushima was like a homecoming for me. It was my fifth consecutive year performing at the biggest arts festival in the world right here in my hometown. It was also a return to the stage after a year of political journalism. It was an opportunity to work once more with my old Scottish Youth Theatre comrade Jack Tarlton, now Joint Artistic Director at Presence. This was a partnership forged on giggling early-teen train journeys and in the unforgiving nature of Glasgow’s Old Athenaeum ‘gong show’ cabaret.
But Emperor Fukushima was also a return to the very subject which brought me to Scotland as a child.
My fourth birthday in 1979 was spent on the road, literally, as my mother, Alison, walked from Gloucestershire to protest against the commissioning of Torness nuclear power station. Admittedly I spent much of the journey being pushed in a buggy. Torness was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, the year Alison died.
Swedish playwright Jacob Hirdwall’s Emperor Fukushima explores living with the consequences of nuclear power disasters, and the concept of legacy. Part of my mum’s legacy was to instil in me a recognition of the power of stories as an important part of how humans relate to the world. Hirdwall’s play also explores this, with the two characters relating personal experiences of two of the most famous disasters to hit nuclear power: a meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, and at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011, where the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to nuclear meltdown.
The play is unequivocal in its criticism of nuclear power, comparing it to an anthill poked with a stick by a child. Today, in the political maelstrom of balancing short-term emissions targets with the increasing appetite for endless energy consumption, nuclear power remains seductive for politicians. This is exactly the type of issue where the power of theatre is absolutely vital. It can step back and allow characters to ask the wider questions that journalists won’t. Questions which exist outside the current news cycle.
Questions like how can burying lethal nuclear waste in bedrock be “guaranteed” to be safe for 100,000 years?, or how to make a warning sign understandable to a language not invented yet, but not so colourful it appeals to natural curiosity. The power of stories indeed.
In Japan, earthquakes continue to cause concern for the Tokyo Electric Power Company. It hasn’t stopped Japan signing a memorandum of understanding with the UK Government to develop new capacity here, where there is little fear of earthquakes. Torness was initially given a lifespan of 35 years, but in February 2016 French operator EDF energy gave the place an extended lifespan. It will now operate until 2030. Only a month after the announcement a reactor was closed because of an undisclosed issue with a valve. In November seaweed caused another reactor closure after it interfered with a cooling water inlet.
‘The emperor is patient. He can wait.’