David Williamson’s latest play is quite a departure for the enduring scribe who’s so often given us comedies about social mores and searing visions of contemporary power struggles. Not to worry – there are still the trademark Williamson barbs and observations about misguided and deluded humans. You just have to take them with a dose of calculus and physics.
The opening play for Queensland Theatre’s newly revamped and more spacious Bille Brown Theatre, Nearer the Gods looks further afield than our neighbourhoods. In fact further afield than our planet. The machinations leading up to the publication of Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation is the surprising and fascinating subject matter. Sure, there’s some technical language to wade through, but not so much as to distract from this often amusing drama.
Of course, Williamson is interested in the man more so than the theory. Apparently, Newton was a difficult kind of guy and Rhys Muldoon (House Husbands) successfully embodies his somewhat tortured genius. We learn that after being deserted by his mother, young Isaac felt the only being to really love him was God. Far from pervading 17th century thoughts about mathematics and science being anathema to the idea of an all-creating being, Newton saw no such conflicts. He could serve both God and scientific discovery and was just as eager to know the former’s plan.
In contrast to this was Newton’s contemporary, atheist astronomer Edmund Halley of Halley’s Comet fame. Played by Matthew Backer (QT’s Switzerland) as wide-eyed and enthusiastic, Halley made it his business to wrangle the secrets of the universe out of Newton for publication. Halley is the emotional centre of the play, and Backer’s passionate and genuine performance of a man on a mission is a fitting counterpoint to Muldoon’s.
The clashing ideas and ideals of these two men drive Nearer the Gods, with Halley and his long-suffering but ultimately supportive wife, Mary (Kimie Tsukakoshi, notable in her QT debut), putting everything on the line to help finance the project. When it looks like Newton will pull out altogether, Mary reminds her husband that he should play on Newton’s competitiveness with physicist Robert Hooke (a suitably unsympathetic Colin Smith).
Sure enough, at the mention of Hooke’s name and the thought that he might end up being credited with the discovery, Newton’s fired up to be the first across the finish line. Moments like these, which elicit laughs from the audience, remind you this is still David Williamson, the purveyor of social comedies at work. The way Newton’s absolute need to vanquish the competition is stronger than his desire to prove his theory brings to mind more than a few modern-day politicians.
So, might one of the greatest scientific discoveries not have been made because of the fickle and flawed nature of one man? Who knows, but it’s what fascinated Williamson to explore further. As a mechanical engineering student impressed by the brilliance of Newton, he was astonished to learn that humanity’s understanding of the laws that govern the motion of the universe might not have been discovered if Edmund Halley hadn’t been so persistent.
Queensland Theatre’s artistic director, Sam Strong and designer Renee Mulder have gone for a minimalist approach visually. The walls and floor of the stage area are a glossy black in a striking use of the new space, which is Brisbane’s first corner stage. Courtesy of lighting designer David Walters, the whole space comes to magical life on a couple of occasions when it transforms into a starry night sky.
The actors and their bare props receive scant lighting, evoking a pre-electricity ambience with candles and lanterns on the tables. For me, it was just too much darkness, so that when actors opened and closed a large sliding door, revealing a brighter setting for short periods, it was a welcome visual variety from the blackness.
The actors eschew period garb and wear nondescript neutral tones in a move that emphasises that no such verisimilitude is needed because really, isn’t it all about the characters, their motivations and their human shortcomings?
This removal of artifice is further entrenched by the actors seamlessly delivering and taking away props as required (credit to movement director, Nerida Matthaei). It all makes for a very immediate sort of audience experience, especially for those in the front row, who are on the same level as the action.
William McInnes as King Charles II is a powerful presence, displaying the typical royal attribute of the day in thinking that, like God, he was infallible. McGuiness exudes just the right amount of charm and self-satisfaction and is one of the play’s highlights, although you wish he was on stage for longer. Supporting players also giving sterling performances all round are QT stalwart Hugh Parker as Christopher Wren and Daniel Murphy, Lucas Stibbard and Hsiao-Ling Tang in multiple roles.
David Williamson probably sums up his play better than anyone in the program notes where he says that it’s about “the toxic disconnect between our highest and basest potentials.The better angels of our nature always in danger of being ripped down by the crocodile lurking in our brainstem”. It’s as true now as it was back in the 1600s.
Nearer the Gods, about a ‘before and after moment’ in human history, deserves to be (and no doubt will be) a success to propel the new theatre and its company in a great leap forward, much like the subject matter.
At Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until November 3
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