Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Higgs is a lecture performance about the many years’ hunt for the Higgs particle. A theatrical voyage of discovery with exclusive background stories, unique film footage, live music and live discussions with experts.
Jan van der Berg isn’t a physicist. He didn’t even think much of high school science class. But ever since he read an article about dark matter in the 1990s, he’s been obsessed with neutrinos, the subatomic particles that shoot through everything in the universe without us even noticing. It is, he explains, an unrequited love. But he’s taking revenge for those neutrinos’ lack of interest by talking about them as much as humanly possible.
As a documentary filmmaker, Jan has travelled halfway across the world to learn about the so-called God Particle. His show is part lecture, part memoir as he shows us footage of his interview with Professor Higgs himself (of Higgs Boson fame), and tells us of his visits to see the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Jan’s love for the Higgs Boson is palpable. Everything is exciting to him: the fact that he got to interview Professor Higgs, the immensity of the Large Hadron Collider, the symbolic nature of the Higgs Boson as an intellectual and spiritual goal for humanity. His interest is infectious.
Unfortunately, Jan’s lecture is framed by a bizarrely colonialist storytelling technique. Beginning with footage of himself held aloft by a crowd of people in Papua New Guinea, he tells us about his family history as a patron of their village. He describes them as the most "primordial" people in the world, connected to the primordial nature of the God Particle. The audience seemed receptive, but I found the “Eat, Pray, Love” attitude rather condescending – particularly when he was doing impressions of the Papua New Guinean villagers’ pidgin English, or their cheerfully awed reactions to his explanation particle physics.
But once we’re past the colonial anecdotes, the lecture is charming and insightful, with the enthusiasm of a TED talk and enough humour to keep the audience laughing. Located in Summerhall’s amphitheatre lecture hall, Jan van der Berg has lucked out by managing to land the perfect Fringe venue.
Once Jan has walked us through his journey to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the lecture ends with a short interview with a different mystery guest each night. By definition this is going to be hit or miss, since Professor Higgs showed up for opening night, but when I was there the guest was a very literal-minded German physicist who was clearly not comfortable with Jan’s poetic interpretation of physics. But as long as you take the interview as a kind of epilogue to the documentary format of Jan’s lecture, it might well turn out to be the icing on the cake.