This Is What “Resilience” Looks Like

The best definition that theatre has offered so far

Robert Butler
3 min readMay 20, 2022


It’s a word that could mean almost anything. But in Steve Waters’ double-bill The Contingency Plan (2009), one of the characters gives the best definition of “resilience” that has so far appeared on stage.

The setting is a cabinet room in Whitehall. Colin Jenks, the government’s chief scientific advisor, is addressing a small, high-powered group of politicians and civil servants.

He starts by asking the question: “What is resilience?” The first answer he gives is the ecological definition. Resilience, he says, is “the capacity of a system to maintain its stability in the face of change and external shocks.” Resilience is, in effect, “stability”.

That’s a bit abstract so, to make his point, he asks them all to stand up.

“Imagine you’re a native English wood,” he says, “that you’re the flora and fauna of this wood, which survives on its own terms and is entirely, as it were, resilient.” Jenks tells the group, “You can be any one of the following elements of that system: soil, tree, mammal, insect.”

He suggests that Chris Casson, the minister for climate change, be a tree. Chris asks to be an oak.

Sarika Chatterjee, a senior civil servant, says she’ll be a bird. Jenks suggests a mistle thrush.

Jenks asks Tessa Fortnum, the minister for resilience, to be soil: “itself a form of life”.

At this point another character enters the room. Will Paxton is a glaciologist. Jenks explains what they’re doing and says they need another ecological link. “Do you fancy being some kind of micro-organism? An earthworm perhaps?”

Will says “fine”. “Good,” says Jenks, “and now we form the web of resilience!”

In his hand, Jenks holds a ball of string.

“I have here the proverbial piece of string which I will give you, Tessa,
given you’re the primary force of life, and then to you, Will, as a driver of
soil decomposition, and then of course to Chris, the tree, supporter of the
living soil (and also a carbon sink, as is the soil, never forget that), and
then over here to…



Robert Butler

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