Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"Sir Isaac Newton. Supreme genius. Unique personality. He invented the cat-flap, refused to use spoons, insisted on crimson décor and his old apple tree now forms the shape of a question mark. He overcame a mother’s rejection, childhood bullying and early humiliation to become a giant of science, finance and society. With characteristic theatricality and masterful storytelling, Klaff’s funny, touching show gives us a warts-and-all portrait of a superhuman thinker, an alchemical wizard and a vindictive – though loved – public figure. Director: Colin Watkeys."
There are moments when I wish I wrote for one of those Twitter-only-review sites. The problem with FringeReview, its ethics and its editorial policies balancing punter and producer is that neither you or I can finish this review with the simple statement: “One recommendation. One Word. Newton.”
Seldom have a venue, script and performer meshed so well. First the venue. Sumerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Hall is a wood-lined steeply inclined…well…lecture hall. Moodily lit on entry (despite the skylight) it has the confused feeling of the proto-universe in the Hartle–Hawking state. Something big is about to happen. And then BANG! onto the scene explodes a duality of script and performer.
Perhaps the most jarring thing about a production ostensibly taking the form of a lecture by Isaac Newton is that Newton, being smarter than the average academic, ensured that his talks as Lucasian professor were so obscure and indecipherable that none of his students had the foggiest what he was on about and avoided them like the plague of half a decade earlier.
Jack Klaff is not so canny. He is the most engaging, comprehensible and comprehensive speaker it has been my privilege to sit at the feet of in no small amount of relative time. There are moments when his passion threatens to spill out into the upper tiers overwhelming his awed audience. I can’t help but think of a recent scene in Game of Thrones when Jamie rescues Brienne from a bear pit. Klaff is physically huge, wonderfully poised, totally in control and entirely convincing as everyone from the timid prepubescent physicist, through Churchill to J. M. Keynes via Edmund Halley. He first speaks as Walter, a CERN physicist – and I spend the next half an hour genuinely amazed that a Belgian scientist has such dramatic range and accuracy as he fires broadside after broadside of red hot intellectual grapeshot. In my astonishment I had totally failed to recognise the actor who played Red Four in Star Wars IV. This is devastatingly well-observed character work at its absolute best.
The narrative arc is biopic. Newton as boy, youff (he was quite the tear-away), young scholar and standout titan of his era. Interspersing the life are the times. Recently I was hauled over the coals for suggesting that a well-respected Fringe regular was pitching low balls to a lightweight audience in a Regency setting. Newton makes no concessions for condescension. Klaff expects you to know who Robert Hooke was. What the Royal Society is. That white light is…erm…you know…a thing. The result is that he covers a wealth of distance with exceptional miles to the gallon. This script would collapse without the counterbalancing force of Klaff and Klaff would be wasted on anything more frilly.
This show is about light. Newton was once described as he who unwove the rainbow. Klaff has a deeper intellectual point to make and he makes it – that Newton posed more questions than he imposed answers. That Newton wove the rainbow of our contemporary enquiry without recourse to those man-made fabrics superstition and credulity, even if he was the last of the magicians – as much John French or Prospero as he was lab coat and scientific method.
Newton is much more than a Mark Steele-esque quirky open-access ascent to the intellectual beauty spots. It’s an unforgiving route march (a simile involving regularised climbing onto the shoulders of giants doesn’t spring to mind…sorry). But what does that matter? Newton is simply the best piece of performance theatre I have seen this Fringe. Passionate, committed, challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I wish I hadn’t seen it so I could watch it afresh again. Bravo!