Highlights from a Year of Science in Theatre 2015

In a year in which high-profile productions such as Photograph 51 and Oppenheimer attracted considerable attention for bringing science to the stage, 2015 was also a year in which smaller gems such as Islington Community Theatre’s Brainstorm shone.

Nicole Kidman, who plays Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner
Nicole Kidman played Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

It was arguably the star appeal of Nicole Kidman rather than the play that drew audiences to the Noel Coward Theatre in September to see Anna Zeigler’s Photograph 51. However, those who saw Kidman’s portrayal of Rosalind Franklin (for which she received an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress) in Michael Grandage’s production saw a theatrical depiction of an intriguing period in the history of science. Science Centre Stage spoke to Edward Bennett, who played Nobel prize wining biophysicist Francis Crick in the production, about his approach to playing a real-life character and visiting the archives at Kings College London. Photograph 51 is currently nominated for best new play in the What’s On Stage Awards (despite first being performed in the USA in 2007).

When Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre at the beginning of the year, its subsequent success was sufficient to lead to a West End transfer. Commuters in London encountered hundreds of posters featuring John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer promoting the play at the Vaudeville Theatre where it played for two months. The Institute of Physics and Graham Farmelo arranged a panel discussion at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in which the playwright, director Angus Jackson, physicist Prof. Frank Close, science journalist Alok Jha and former Times literary editor Erica Wagner discussed the themes of the play in an event chaired by deputy artistic director of the RSC Erica Whyman.

Another panel discussion in May at the Royal Society, also chaired by Erica Whyman, saw Tom Morton-Smith discuss Oppenheimer with Prof. Marcus du Sautoy, Prof. John Barrow and science-theatre scholar Prof. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (whose new book Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett was published by Columbia University Press in 2015).

Although Oppenheimer and Photograph 51 offered the highest profile portrayals of scientists in mainstream theatre last year, there were also some very strong smaller scale performances bringing together science and theatre, particularly generated by collaborations between scientists, theatre makers and writers.

Brainstorm was developed with support from the Wellcome Trust
Brainstorm was developed by Islington Community Theatre with support from the Wellcome Trust

An undoubted highlight of 2015 was Brainstorm, Islington Community Theatre’s uplifting and energetic piece exploration of the neuroscience of the teenage brain. It was performed by 10 teenagers with support from the Wellcome Trust and was devised by the cast with guidance from UCL neuroscientists Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Katie Mills and directed by Ned Glasier. A hugely successful opening run at the small Park Theatre in January led to a well-deserved transfer to the National Theatre’s temporary theatre space in the summer. Islington Community Theatre then took part in Battersea Arts Centre’s Live From Television Centre project, resulting in a 30-minute version of Brainstorm becoming available on BBC iPlayer, substantially widening the audience it reached. Brainstorm will return to the National Theatre in 2016.

Harry Lister Smith Photo: Richard Davenport
Harry Lister Smith in Metta Theatre’s Mouthful Photo: Richard Davenport

Another intriguing production benefiting from Wellcome Trust support in 2015 was Metta Theatres’ Mouthful, in which international playwrights were paired with scientists to produce six short plays about the global food crisis. The result was a thought provoking and engaging production at London’s Trafalgar Studios. Science Centre Stage spoke to Metta Theatre’s artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan about the development process behind Mouthful and how the scientists and writers worked together to create the plays.

Menagerie Theatre also continued their strong programme of pairing academics and writers in their What’s Up Doc? series for the 2015 Hotbed Festival in Cambridge. Pictures of You was writer Craig Baxter’s latest collaboration with Dr. Martina Di Simplicio of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, in which mental imagery was explored in a short play that was subsequently had a short run at London’s Soho Theatre.

That Is All You Need To Know - Idle Motion
That Is All You Need To Know – Idle Motion

There was barely space to swing Alan Turing’s bicycle in the upstairs space at the Arts Theatre (though they tried) as The Hope Theatre’s performed Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear in a quirky and offbeat take on the life of Alan Turing directed by Matthew Parker. Meanwhile, Turing also featured in That Is All You Need To Know at the New Diorama Theatre as Idle Motion performed their Bletchley Park inspired piece of remarkable devised physical theatre for the last ever time.

A NUMBER by Churchhill,         , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Michael Longhurst, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Lee Curran, The Young Vic Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

At the peripheries of the science-theatre genre lie certain plays presenting dystopic but feasible near-future scenarios. In 2015 the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether asked pressing questions about the boundaries between the online world and reality during a 12 week run at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The Young Vic Theatre played host to Southampton Nuffield’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, exploring the possible consequences of where human cloning could take us. Science Centre Stage spoke to director Michael Longhurst about the background to the play and how he and Tom Scutt worked together on the striking set design.

Nick Payne's Constellations had a UK Tour in 2015
Nick Payne’s Constellations had a UK Tour in 2015

The inestimable Tom Stoppard topped and tailed the year with his new neuroscience-inspired play The Hard Problem opening at the National Theatre in January and a revival of the little-performed Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre in December. Hapgood is a spy-thriller drawing on ideas from quantum physics which apparently baffled many who saw the original production in 1988. However, Stoppard has revised the play several times since, including an updated version for the Hampstead Theatre that runs until 23rd January 2016.

The Hard Problem will have its USA premiere from 6th January 2016 at he Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Stoppard discussed the play with philosopher David Chalmers, who first coined the term the ‘hard problem’ to address the question of consciousness, on stage recently ahead of the new production.

January 2015 saw the death of scientist and playwright Carl Djerassi at the age of 91. Djerassi’s writing about the relationship between science and theatre was extensive and he wrote many plays, including Insufficiency and Oxygen (with Roald Hoffmann) each constructed around some aspect of science. Despite at times being controversial, and with mixed reactions to his plays, his approach was spirited and there is no doubt Djerassi contributed a great deal to the consideration of the place of science on the stage. Jenny Rohn wrote thoughtfully about her own interactions with Djerrassi in a piece for LabLit in March.

Lisa Dillon as Elizabeth Haploid at the Hampstead Theatre until 23rd January
Lisa Dillon as Elizabeth Hapgood at the Hampstead Theatre until 23rd January

If 2015 was a strong year for science in theatre then 2016 also has some interesting prospects in store. A new play by Nick Payne for the Donmar Warehouse opens in April. The Royal Shakespeare Company will apply their considerable resources and talents to a new version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, arguably one of the early depictions of a scientist in theatre. But if Photograph 51, Oppenheimer and The Hard Problem were some of the mainstream successes of 2015, it is the smaller gems that may also be most worth seeking out in 2016.

Director Poppy Burton-Morgan Serves Up Science-Inspired Food for Thought

Collaborations between theatre makers and scientists can lead to work that tackles diverse and complex subjects. Mouthful is an interesting example. Developed by Metta Theatre and currently playing in an intimate space at Trafalgar Studios in London, the production comprises six short plays exploring different aspects of the global food crisis. Four actors play over 20 characters and the result in an absorbing, entertaining and surprisingly informative experience.

Dona Croll, Robert Hands, Harry Lister Smith and Alisha Bailey Photo: Richard Davenport
Dona Croll, Robert Hands, Harry Lister Smith and Alisha Bailey in Mouthful. Photo: Richard Davenport

The writer of each play was paired with a scientist with expertise in a particular area of sustainable global food provision, enabled by funding from a Wellcome Trust arts award. The resulting series of plays includes visions of dystopian futures without food or water, mini domestic dramas and a brief musical performed by dancing insects…

Science Centre Stage spoke with the director of Mouthful, Poppy Burton-Morgan, about how Metta Theatre came to tackle the issue of global food sustainability on stage and how the playwrights and scientists worked together to create the six pieces.

What’s is the background to Mouthful, what’s it about and what are you aiming to achieve with it?

A few years ago in 2012 we commissioned six writers to write new short plays about the Arab Spring and wove the whole thing together into one play. Then in 2013 we were commissioned to develop a piece that was responding to political austerity – we used bread as a medium to explore that and how bread has been used in protest. Those are the conceptual seeds of doing something to explore the global food crisis through multiple voices. We’ve made quite a few pieces of what you might call science-theatre where we’ve collaborated with scientists in creating the work. So we took this one further in terms of commissioning six playwrights, each of whom were partnered up with a scientist, who all have different areas of research and specialisms relevant to the food crisis and food system and population ecology.

Some of the plays are incredibly dramatic. Some of them are little bit heart breaking

Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey Photo: Richard Davenport
Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey in The Protectors by Clare Bayley. Photo: Richard Davenport

Each of them went off in their pairs and created these six stories that we’ve then woven together into one play. They take us all over the world. There’s some organic carrot farming in Columbia. There’s a play about the Tunisian bread riots back in 2010. There are two that are set in strange dystopian futures. There’s one where there are no more potatoes and one where we’ve almost run out of water. Each of them took a different foodstuff and explored something to do with that. Each one either has a foodstuff or drink physically on stage. They’re very funny, but as you can imagine some of them are incredibly dramatic. Some of them are little bit heart breaking. The great thing is that a few of them are laugh out loud comedy as well. It’s got a bit of everything!

It’s actually amazing the way technology has allowed us to create a truly international project

Did you give the writers and scientists a free hand to see what they came up with or did you help enable the process, for example with workshops?

Alisha Bailey Photo: Richard Davenport
Alisha Bailey in 16 Pounds by Neil LaBute.
Photo: Richard Davenport

The process was different for each partnership. Because it’s a completely international collaboration, the writers and the scientists between them cover four continents and a lot of countries. There was only one partnership where both the scientist and the writer were based in London. Actually for most of them it was about facilitating electronic introductions. Those relationships were really played out through email and Skype and occasionally phone calls and texts. We found in 2012 when we did the Arab Spring pieces (where we had international writers) that it’s actually amazing the way technology allows us to create a truly international project. We’re quite a small company, we don’t have the budget to fly everyone over, from Columbia, from America, from Finland. A lot of it has been done electronically.

There’s a real vogue for science-theatre that is exploring scientific ideas, scientific methodology

Alisha Bailey and Harry Lister Smith. Photo: Richard Davenport
Alisha Bailey and Harry Lister Smith in Chocolate by Bola Agbaje. Photo: Richard Davenport

I’ve had quite a light touch in terms of the relationship between each partnership. For some of them I think it’s that the scientists would say ‘here is some research you could look into, here are some of my papers – does that provoke anything in terms of what you might write about, where you might go?’. And then I think for some of them it was a much involved, integrated process, and the writers sent them early drafts and some of the scientists would say – ‘actually, what you’ve written isn’t really possible or scientifically accurate and here are some papers that could take you in a different direction’. What’s really exciting is that some of them have really grappled with current research and current philosophical issues and ideas within science as well. But it feels like that bedrock has remained really accurate and at the heart of the plays.

Audiences want the thrill of theatre but they want the intellectual provocation of some really meaty ideas

Between each of the six stories there are info-graphic interludes of video projection where various facts pertaining to either to the story that you’ve just seen or the story that you’re about to see come up in an animated info-graphic way. Without becoming didactic and like a public lecture, you hopefully leave it feeling that you have learned something about the global food crisis and all of the science around that but in a way that doesn’t mean the plays themselves have to shoehorn in those facts. That feels really successful.

Did the writers deliver finished scripts or did the actors help devise some of it as well?

No it’s all very much script-based. So the writers and scientists worked together in developing each of the pieces. Things have evolved a little bit in rehearsals. We had a four-week rehearsal process. But nothing major in terms of re-writes. They all sit quite firmly within a conventional play, albeit a short play.

Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey. Photo: Richard Davenport
Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey. Photo: Richard Davenport

Is the global food crisis a particular topic you have had in mind to tackle for a while?

I think we felt really strongly that when we did these Arab Spring pieces in 2012 that the short play format is such a great way of examining a global system where there is a multiplicity of voices, opinions and conflicts between certain parties’ versions of events. The majority of the work we make is quite politically or socially engaged but also done in quite a theatrically imaginative way. We were really interested in how we could explore something as global and epic as the global food crisis through theatre and through a series of shorter plays, short stories, to allow us to show different voices and different sides of the argument.

We were really interested in how we could explore something as global and epic as the global food crisis

All of the six pieces (actually seven – there’s a secret seventh piece which is a four minute musical about entomophagy – a whole other thing!) are linked thematically. But they speak about such different aspects of the system, coming from such different perspectives, that I think it gives people an insight in depth to those six issues, but it also makes you step back and go ‘these are six tiny pieces of an enormous puzzle’. And the problem that we have to grapple with in the play and that we have to grapple with in reality is that that system is so inter-connected that you can’t solve it by saying ‘buy organic’ or ‘don’t eat meat’ or ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. There’s no one lovely catchall that would solve the system crisis. So hopefully the diversity of voices is a good way of demonstrating and exploring that.

Harry Lister Smith Photo: Richard Davenport
Harry Lister Smith in Turned by Inua Ellams. Photo: Richard Davenport

Did the Wellcome Trust help facilitate the links with the scientists or is that something that you pursued directly yourself?

We went through that directly ourselves. Because we’ve done various science-theatre collaborations in the past we’re quite connected to the scientific community. The main scientific adviser is Professor Tim Benton who is the UK champion for global food security. Most of the other scientific collaborators were recommendations of colleagues or friends of his that he thought would be interested and provoked by the idea of an artistic collaboration. Which is lovely because they all have different areas of knowledge and they’re spread across the world – which feels like quite an exciting international thing.

The majority of the work we make is quite politically or socially engaged but also done in quite a theatrically imaginative way

Did adviser Prof Tim Benton come to the rehearsal room to advise?

We had several meetings with him early on before we’d even commissioned the writers in terms of how we would shape the project and the kind of scientists we would want to find to partner up with the writers and then he popped in and out of rehearsals. Once we had the scripts he read them all to check for accuracy and that theses are the right messages we want to be saying and are these the right provocations we want to be giving to audiences. We were really lucky in that one of our American scientists happened to be in the UK over the rehearsal period so she managed to pop by as well. For the others we filmed bits and used Skype so the cast could meet the international collaborators. We tried to keep it an open and welcoming project for everyone, even if they’re several thousand miles away that they still feel as involved as the writer who lives down the road and can just wander in.

Harry Lister Smith, Robert Hands, Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey Photo: Richard Davenport
Harry Lister Smith, Robert Hands, Dona Croll and Alisha Bailey in Bread on the Table by Lydia Adetunji. Photo: Richard Davenport

Given the international scale and electronic collaboration it’s possible that some of the writers and scientific advisers may not even have actually met in person yet at all?

Absolutely. I think the majority of them haven’t. In some wonderful world where we transfer to the National Theatre or something and we have million of pounds (!) it would be such a wonderful thing to be able to fly everyone over and for everyone to meet in the flesh but everyone has to make to with virtual introductions at the moment. It would be lovely to tour the work to New York and show it to the American contingent of our collaborators, take it to Columbia, take it to Finland. So watch this space!

There’s no one lovely catchall that would solve the system crisis.

The success of Islington Youth Theatre’s Brainstorm (another science -inspired collaboration that transferred to the National Theatre) perhaps indicates a current taste for this type of work?

Harry Lister Smith, Dona Croll and Robert Hands. Photo: Richard Davenport
Harry Lister Smith, Dona Croll and Robert Hands. Photo: Richard Davenport

I think there’s an appetite for it. There’s a real vogue for science-theatre that is exploring scientific ideas, scientific methodology. People don’t want to come and see a public lecture. They want their theatre to still be theatrical. Hopefully what we do well is marry that integrity of scientific content with an imaginative theatricality and performance style. There are four actors who across the evening play 21 characters and all of them happen around the same dining table and stools so there’s a certain amount of imaginative leap that that the audience has to go on. Audiences want that, they want the thrill of theatre but they want the intellectual provocation of some really meaty ideas.

Poppy Burton-Morgan is Artistic Director of Metta Theatre. Mouthful is at Trafalgar Studios until 3rd October 2015