The Earthworks by Tom Morton Smith takes place in a hotel in Geneva on the eve of the switch on of the Large Hadron Collider.
‘Two strangers – a journalist and a scientist – share their experience of loss and hope in a funny but deeply touching one-act play.’ -Playtext published by Oberon Books.
First performed at the RSC Mischief Festival at Stratford-upon-Avon in May 2017.
You’re one of those ‘because the sun’s going to expand and swallow the earth in four billion years…everything is therefore meaningless’ kind of people. Leave the Ladybird Book of Nihilism on the shelf and tell me something real.
Clare to Fritojof, The Earthworks, Scene 5
by Tom Morton-Smtih (2017)
'The universe doesn't care if we know how it works.'
‘The Uncertainty Principle’ is the subtitle of Simon Stephens’ new play Heisenberg, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. But this is not the only time the principle has been explored on stage during 2017…
Much like Simon Stephens’ other new play this year, Nuclear War, the title of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is not particularly indicative of the content. Heisenberg is a touching romantic comedy in which the uncertainty principle makes only the loosest of appearances. This presents no difficulty in itself – artists are of course entirely entitled to use whatever ideas they choose as a title for their work. However, perhaps it indicates something about the cultural climate in 2017 that producers can confidently borrow an otherwise esoteric scientific concept to market a main stream West End production.
The Royal Court Theatre, which produced Stephens’ Nuclear War, also premiered Lucy Kirkwood’s new work The Children earlier in the year. This was a dark and reflective piece about the legacy of three retired nuclear scientists of the baby boomer generation. As thoughtful as The Children was, it was surely Lucy Kirkwood’s other major new work Mosquitoes at the National Theatre that was arguably the piece of standout science theatre in 2017.
Mosquitoes is set at the time of the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in 2008. A play that includes a character called ‘The Boson’ immediately rings alarm bells over the risk of didactic dialogue and some superficially inserted science. Far from it, Mosquitoes delivered an absorbing and funny family drama with complex three-dimensional characters that we come to care deeply about. The scientific setting sits very comfortably within the play, complementing but not dominating the narrative. It is the tale of two sisters, Alice – a staff scientist at CERN (played by Olivia Williams) – and Jenny, her troubled and arguably naïve sister (Olivia Colman). Contrary to Alice’s high minded approach, Jenny has developed her own brand of tabloid-style scepticism and fact-free opinion that results in difficult consequences for her and her family. As a politician famously once said, ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
Mosquitoes also features two relatable teenage characters who are grappling with their sense of place – both literal place (displaced from England to Geneva) and virtual (negotiating the brave new Snapchat world). What Kirkwood and director Rufus Norris achieved with Mosquitoes is the rare combination of a full length two-act play that draws heavily on science and yet comfortably stands alone as an enjoyable, relevant and probing piece of theatre.
It is the character of the sisters’ mother Karen (Amanda Boxer), a retired Cambridge scientist herself, who brings up the uncertainty principle in the form a joke told to her daughter (partially to alienate Colman’s less science-savvy character). The principle (and the joke) is never overtly explained for the benefit of the audience. If we are also to feel alienated rather than enlightened is something that we are left to decide for ourselves, much to the credit of the writer.
Mosquitoes was not the only new play this year set around the opening of the LHC. The Royal Shakespeare company took this on as part of their Mischief Festival in the spring when Tom Morton-Smith (Oppenheimer 2015) delivered a one-act piece for ‘The Other Place’ studio theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Earthworks charts an encounter between a science journalist and a postdoc researcher, also on the eve of the LHC switch-on. It’s a very neat little piece (on a similarly human scale to some of Nick Payne’s one act plays) with some fun science inserted (at one point non-Newtonian fluids are demonstrated live on stage with custard borrowed from the kitchen of an up-market hotel). The Earthworks offers a valuable new perspective that other ‘science plays’ have not yet really approached – a sense of the potential conflict between the need for click-friendly news nuggets to sustain modern online media and the more considered, often-long term nature of scientific research. There was plenty of great material to work with here and The Earthworks adds a great deal to the genre. However, towards the end of the play, real science is conflated with (albeit plausible) science fiction. This worked well to advance the narrative in a moving way, but it felt slightly disappointing to mix fact and (near) fiction in the same piece given that there is already so much great real science in the play.
The confusion of fact and fiction is central to Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance, currently enjoying a revival at The Arcola Theatre in Dalston. The Professor, The Actress, The Senator and The Ball Player all meet in a fantasy encounter in a 1950s Manhattan hotel room. The contrivance works because the characters (although never named) are of course Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Jo DiMaggio. It’s a fun and at times sinister piece with some great casting by director David Mercatali. The gentle Einstein (Simon Rouse), a flighty but vulnerable Monroe (Alice Bailey Johnson) and an oafish DiMaggio (Oliver Hembrough) spar and with each other and with the ruthless Senator McCarthy (Tom Mannio). Since Einstein is in nearly every scene it comes as no surprise that science makes an appearance. However it is in fact Monroe who gives a breathless and accurate summary of the principles of special relativity to The Professor in the first act, before the play goes on to explore some its darker themes.
Shortly before the end of Insignificance Einstein makes a passing reference to the uncertainty principle. It drew a muffled but knowing response from members of the audience, who were perhaps conscious that this is not the only ticket in town with a bit of exposure to this particular piece of science.
It was of course nearly 20 years ago that Michael Frayn so successfully wove the uncertainty principle seamlessly into the structure of Copenhagen at the National Theatre. It seems almost churlish to note here that none of the recent productions discussed above manage to replicate that sophistication. However, the prevalence of the uncertainty principle in 2017 demonstrates that audiences are increasingly comfortable to engage with science in a theatrical setting. And that seems to be one principle worth pursuing.
Nick Payne’s hotly anticipated play Incognito has attracted four and five star reviews in the British press after premiering at the High Tide Festival earlier this month. Incognito is currently completing a run at Theatre Live Newcastle (who co-produced the play with nabokov) until 3rd May, before transferring to North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford and then to the Bush Theatre in London from the 14th May to 21st June.
Incognito does for neuroscience and psychology what Payne’s previous science-inspired play, Constellations, did for physics and beekeeping. Like Constellations, the scenes are snappy and constantly colliding into each other, transitions signified by jarring audio stings. However, whereas Constellations repeatedly explored the possible paths of a relationship between just two people (the physicist and the beekeeper), Incognito crams scores of characters (both real life and fictional) into its 90 minutes, all of which are played by just four actors
Combining fact and fiction, fantasy and reality into a single piece inevitably introduces ambiguities for an audience. As a preface to the text of Incognito, Nick Payne writes “despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several true stories, this play is a work of fiction.” Thomas Stolz Harvey, the pathologist who removed Einstein’s brain in 1955 certainly lived, as did many of the other characters in Incognito. Other parts are fictionalised versions of real people such as Henry M who developed amnesia after surgery for epilepsy in the mid 20th century. And many of the characters are simply conjured by Payne, enabling him to weave together multiple engaging human tales.
It takes some feat of acting to convincingly bring to life over 20 distinct characters without overlap but Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda achieve it admirably, switching between accents and postures in the blink of an eye. Joe Murphy’s direction seems to employ an almost clinical precision in the movement. Yelda’s range is particularly broad, evoking empathy and disgust for his characters in short order.
The range of ideas addressed in Incognito is equally broad, from the spontaneous emergent order displayed by a flock of starlings to concepts in mental health, medical ethics, establishing a sense of family and belonging and personal identity. There is a lot to unpack in this play, which is all bundled up in the history of science, pseudo-history and pure dramatisation. But it’s certainly worth a look because once again Nick Payne intrigues and inspires with a complex new work.
This short video by Colour Films was made to introduce Menagerie Theatre Company‘s 2013 Hotbed Festival of new writing. The festival featured Somniloquy by Craig Baxter, a monolgue written in conjunction with sleep scientist Prof. Richard Horner and performed by Jasmin Hyde.
Photograph 51 deals with Rosalind Franklin’s oft overlooked contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and is named after the famous X-ray crystallography photo that provided vital evidence for the breakthrough.
An Experiment With An Air Pump uses Joseph Wright’s 18th century painting of an enlightenment scientist giving a demonstration to entranced onlookers as inspiration for a play set over two time periods.
An adaption for of Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything by Lauren Gunderson and Lucas Hnath’s play about Isaac Newton, Isaac’s Eye, complete the bill of four staged readings.
The year 2013 has been a good one for the science-in-theatre genre with numerous performances of established classics staged throughout the world as well as new plays appearing on the scene.
The year began with the final few performances of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at The National Theatre in London. The complexities of love amid a neuropharmacology clinical trial attracted both sell-out audiences and a clutch of awards and nominations for the Headlong/NT team.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new version of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo in the Swan Theatre brought audiences to Stratford-Upon-Avon to enjoy a lively and musical production with set-design by Tom Scutt.
Several new plays portraying the history of science opened throughout the year. Operation Epsilon by Alan Brody premiered in Boston USA, dealing with the post-war detention of German nuclear scientists and offering an intriguing postscript to Michael Frayn’s mighty Copenhagen. STELLA, a new play by Sibohan Nicholas featuring portrayals of 18th Century astronomers Caroline and William Herschel, opened in Brighton in May and went on to tour small venues in the UK and Ireland throughout the summer.
A highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August was Adura Onashile’s portrayal of Henrietta Lacks in her one-woman show HeLa. Onashile’s performance brought the story of Lacks treatment in the 1950s and the prolifically multiplying cell line that has lived on in the decades since her death to ever-wider audiences. The wartime code-breaking endeavors of Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park were also brought to life at the Edinburgh Festival in Idle Motion’s immensely imaginative That is All You Need to Know.
As ever, Frayn’s Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia proved popular choices for professional and amateur theatre companies throughout the world. In Hong Kong there was a reading of Copenhagen in Mandarin in October and as well as a revival of a production given by Nobel laureates in Gothenburg in December. The appeal of Arcadia was confirmed this year when it was voted fourth in a list of the Britain’s favorite plays.
There are promising events in store for 2014 with the world premiere of Dava Sobel’s play about Copernicus And the Sun Stood Still set for production in Denver in April. With new tours of STELLA, Hanging Hooke and A Life of Galileo on the cards in the UK as well as a new play about neuroscience on the way from Constellations playwright Nick Payne, 2014 is looking bright for science-in-theatre.
A new play about neuroscience by Nick Payne will premiere at the HighTide festival in Suffolk in 2014. Payne, who enjoyed success with Constellations, has written Incognito for the festival which takes place in Halseworth between 10-19 April. According to the Guardian, Incognito has a similarly complex structure to Constellations and weaves several stories, including a plot about the autopsy in which Einstein’s brain was removed and dissected in 1955.
As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe enters its final few days there is still a chance to see HeLa, Adura Onashile’s one woman show about the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
When Lacks attended the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital for treatment in 1951, a sample of tissue was taken without her knowledge. The now famous HeLa cell-line has played a role in many medical breakthroughs in the decades since.
The evocative wooden-panelled setting of the Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Edinburgh’s Summerhall provides a backdrop for this new piece of physical theatre. Adura Onashile’s powerful and versatile performance captivates for the whole hour as the play examines some of the ethical questions surrounding the treatment of the Lacks family and the scientific significance of the HeLa cell-line.
Meanwhile, at the same venue Jack Klaff stars in a 75 minute show about the life of Isaac Newton, first performed the the Gravity Fields Festival in Grantham in 2012.
HeLa, produced by Iron-Oxide, is on daily at 6.45pm at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 25th August 2013. Newton plays at the same venue at 5pm.
Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park story get the theatrical treatment at the Edinburgh Fringe this year in Idle Motion‘s new play That is All You Need to Know. This piece of physical theatre uses brilliantly imaginative stagecraft to tell the stories of some of the people who tried to save the wartime code-breaking site from the brink of destruction. It also tells the tales of some of the people who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and who weren’t allowed to talk openly about what they did for decades afterwards.
Music, movement, drama, stunningly simple visual effects and commanding performances combined to make this a captivating experience when StageScite caught That is All You Need to Know at the Greenwich Theatre in June.
That is All You Need to Know is at the Zoo Southside, Edinburgh at 17:05 on 2nd-24th August 2013 (not 11th and 18th).