It is no wild hysteria of the imagination to believe it may happen. The absence of cold from places where cold once was king.
Perhaps – if not in our lifetime – the very event of snowfall will become so rare, eco-tourism operators will advertise it as their ultimate exotic sightseeing adventure (and as with most eco-tourism, perhaps it will be disappointing; a grey powder, too thin for angels to be sketched on the ground).
True, on this day of early February, with La Nina squalling over the eastern seaboard, it felt more like the strange start of winter than its imminent end. But myopia is a killer. The evidence for the global shift is overwhelming and undeniable. Alarmist? We should be alarmed.
In 2015 Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk woman seeing her Arctic home evaporate each year, declared the ‘right to be cold’ fundamental, arguing that climate change is a human rights issue. This ethical positioning (and this fact, one of many) runs through Noëlle Janaczewska’s The End of Winter, a 55-minute performance essay presented by Siren Theatre Co with the support of Griffin Theatre.
Directed with light touch by Kate Gaul, it is one woman’s cerebral, deeply personal, eco-poetic odyssey, in which she travels through the realms of childhood memories and forgotten histories, science and art, folklore and myth to present a paean to winter, sung in the key of anticipatory loss.
Jane Phegan, who has something of the fairytale snow child about her, is an engaging conduit to Janaczewska’s fine piece of writing. Her dark eyes sparkle, and with rippling variation in her monologue, she maps a glittering tapestry of winter.
“Everyone has a native season,” she says. Janaczewska lives in Sydney Australia, but the hot and topsy-turvy seasons of the southern hemisphere dismay her. She escapes it as best she can in her travels, books, curiosity and longings.
With Nate Edmundson’s glacial soundscape drifting in and out on the edges of perception, we alight upon Scott’s hot cocoa and ice cores, Snegurochka the snow maiden, forgotten feminist heroes, and (quite possibly) hundreds more facets of winter, turned like a glittering jewel.
The script is knitted together in a complex skein, slipping nimbly between research-driven essay, personal memoir and cultural dispatch. Janaczewska’s language is spry, questing and lightly humorous; flitting like a robin between piquant observation (the micro-aggressions of weather forecasters in describing sunny days “fine” and cold ones “miserable”) and sombre comment (the funeral held in 2019 to honour Iceland’s first melted glacier).
Attuned as only an artist can be to the macro and micro, Janaczewska’s sorrow for the de-wintering of the world and all it will mean is intricate and obsessive. If the Asian climate warms, will defectors from North Korea find their passage south over the ice an unnavigable sea?
If we know longer know the meaning of cold, or have reason to describe it, what are the implications for language, for metaphor?
The grief for winter is also paired with another kind – that for her mother, whom she recently lost. In between her travels forwards and backwards in time, we find Janaczewska/Phegan in her family home in London, where she grew up, surrounded by memories.
On an otherwise empty stage, one object is anchored – a miniature version of a large house, lit from within like a jack-o-lantern (glowing orange, then blue). Through Soham Apte’s arresting design, it appears to be sinking backwards at an angle into the shiny black floor, as if into an obsidian lake. The upside down world of the house and the woman appear as reflections, trapped beneath its dark surface.
During her monologue, which flows with barely a pause, Phegan sometimes clambers on top of the house, as if the ice caps had indeed released their deluges and this tiny, fragile home was all the refuge left.
As exquisitely written as The End of Winter is, one wonders whether it could just as well have existed as a purely textual work of narrative nonfiction. Despite Phegan’s clear talent for storytelling, the monologue at times overwhelms in its litany of winter observations and facts; despite its brevity, the exhaustion creeps into the bones, accompanied and perhaps exacerbated by the now familiar ache of climate despair.
Perhaps the performative element is an important one, though, for the simple fact of its immediacy. Sitting next to each other (rather than, for example, in front of a computer screen to read the text), we participate in a shared mourning, and perhaps a shared hope.
I am, I confess, not of a kindred icy spirit to Janaczewska. Winter is not my native season. I would even say I harbour great resentment and fear towards the cold. Even in February, I had the heater on in my home earlier that day, sitting myself right in front of it so that heat roses bloomed on my back and thighs. Fatal to any love affair, perhaps, I have never even seen snow except for many miles above, viewed from a plane window.
Outside the theatre, a cold wind ripped the warmth from my chest, and I cursed it. But not without a grudging love, and with the hope that mankind thousands of years from now will have the privilege to curse it, too. May we animals always shiver.