Brighton Fringe 2013
Do you know the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby? If you haven’t yet seen them, have a quick look now. Google him – you’re reading this online, so it’s only a couple of clicks and you can be looking at ‘A Philosopher gives a Lecture on the Orrery’ or ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’.
Stunning, aren’t they? Joseph Wright was an eighteenth century painter, and he specialised in portraying the Enlightenment and the start of the Industrial Revolution – tightly posed groups of people learning about the new discoveries of Science, or working with the furnaces and forges that were transforming the world.
The paintings are all lit by a single light source – a lamp, usually, or a piece of white-hot iron – which gives wonderful modelling to the subjects’ features, and acts as a focus to the whole composition. I’m mentioning Wright’s works here because the lighting and staging of ‘Stella’ brought them irresistibly to mind. That, and the fact that all the scientists and experimenters in his paintings are … male.
All the great art and science has been done by men, right? You’d be excused for thinking so when you read most histories of science. The men get the credit and the name-checks, the women get written out of the story. A good example is William Herschel, the astronomer. He built the most powerful telescopes of his day, and was the first to realise that some of the fuzzy ‘nebulae’ were actually galaxies in their own right. He had a sister, Caroline, who contributed equally to the Herschels’ discoveries. Haven’t heard of her? Look, there she is, down at the bottom of the page, in the footnotes…
Playwright Siobhán Nicholas has written ‘Stella’ to give Caroline Herschel back her rightful place in the history of science. And by extension, to point up the difficulties and inequalities endured by all women in their careers, right up to the present day. So at one level it’s a feminist polemic. It also happens to be beautifully staged.
The acting space at The Old Market was all black, with a round blue carpet in the centre. There was a telescope on a stand over to the left, a small round table on the carpet, and three chairs. Georgian-looking furniture, off-white and rather elegant. A very simple set, but it managed to evoke the eighteenth century while remaining somehow timeless. There were video projections on the whole of the back wall, a series of old star maps and arrangements of the constellations as well as deep-space images of galaxies and nebulae from modern telescopes.
Nicholas tells the story of William and Caroline Herschel in the eighteenth century, through the invented characters of modern-day astrophysicist, Jessica Bell, and her husband Bill, a professional musician. Jessica is researching the life of Caroline Herschel for an article, but Bill (another William, see?) wants her to set aside her own project to support him in his new orchestral post in Hamburg. It’s done with just three actors, and the action segues back and forth between the two families and the two eras, showing us that not very much has changed over the centuries.
"Why is it always me who gives things up?" demands Jessica as the couple argue – she tall and slim, with hair starting to go grey, he slightly shorter, with long hair and a beard, both of them dressed in cardigans and narrow white jeans. Then the lights dim momentarily, and there’s a timeshift as we meet the Herschels. Jessica goes to sit at the back of the stage and Bill exchanges his cardigan for a buff frock-coat to become William. It’s cleverly done – those narrow white jeans become the breeches and stockings of a Georgian gentleman, and the coat completes the illusion.
Siobhán Nicholas herself plays Caroline, in a long white dress and a white wrap around her shoulders. The Herschels were from Hanover, and Nicholas managed to give Caroline a trace of an accent throughout the play. When the action jumped back to the twenty-first century she became Penelope, the curator of the Herschels’ house in Bath, losing the accent and exchanging the wrap for a scarf.
Like Jessica, Caroline had to give up a lot of things during her life. Her brother was a conductor and composer and Caroline originally came to England to help with his music (and keep house). She showed great talent as a singer, and was the star soprano in several concerts. But as William became increasingly involved in astronomy, he forced her to set aside that career to assist with his new endeavours. She had an immense talent for this work, too, recording their observations with great precision and also carrying out her own telescope observing. She found eight comets in her own right, and in 1800 the Herschels discovered the planet Uranus. After William’s death she produced a catalogue of nebulae which earned her a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
But as a woman, she was denied any recognition until quite late in her life. When William was appointed the ‘King’s Private Astronomer’, with an annual pension of £200, Caroline had to be content to be the ‘King’s Astronomer’s Assistant’, and her brother couldn’t envisage asking for a salary of more than £50 – "After all, that’s more than a governess receives…".
The staging was masterly. The actors moved around the central table, two playing the scene with the third usually sitting at the back, but in a sequence where an older William and Caroline revisit their house in Bath, Jessica was standing, then kneeling, very close to them, eavesdropping over the centuries. The lighting throughout was enhanced with just a few spotlights, high and from the side, which gave the actors almost the quality of sculpted marble – and made me think of the Joseph Wright paintings I mentioned at the start. Combined with the classic star maps behind, the effect was – ravishing.
Thus far, a believable and touching portrait of Caroline Herschel’s life. But the playwright has added extra stories to parallel the main narrative. Jessica and Bill have a daughter, Eve, a classics student who’s doing an internship at the new Library in Alexandria. When she Skypes her mother we get the phone’s video display projected in place of the star maps , and we see Eve and her colleagues performing their chorus chanting, in ancient Greek, extracts of the works of Hypatia.
Hypatia was a philosopher and mathematician living in seventh century Alexandria. She taught the works of Plato, and edited Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’, the most important work on astronomy until the Renaissance. Penelope the curator tells Jessica that Hypatia – "defended the Library", so she’s obviously supposed to symbolise learning and knowledge in the play, although her death – "her body was torn limb from limb by rabid Christian monks" – would also point us to the long-running conflict between science and religion.
Authors seldom choose characters’ names quite at random, and calling the daughter ‘Eve’ reminds us of another sort of knowledge – that of Good and Evil that Eve was tempted by in the Garden of Eden. Eve, whose disobedience caused the Fall, and tainted all humanity with ‘Original Sin’.
Siobhán Nicholas brings all these threads into the picture she’s weaving (see, even Penelope has her place here, doing her wifely duty, waiting for her husband’s return and unpicking the tapestry each night…), but really there’s too much material for the audience to process easily. I was also a little worried that she had William Herschel talking about time spans of millions of years in a century that reckoned the age of the Universe since the Creation to be measured in thousands of years at most. That concept of the immensity of time didn’t really take hold until well into the nineteenth century, with the discoveries of geology.
Near the end, Herschel seemed to have jumped a further century, anticipating Einstein – "A telescope that has the power to penetrate deep space, also has the power to penetrate deep time. Time and space, cradling light and darkness…for a fraction of an arc-second I understood it, and then it floated away, out of my grasp". Poetic lines, but it’s rather straining credulity to attribute these musings to Herschel. (and it’s ‘second’ if we’re talking time, an ‘arc-second’ is an angle.)
Finally, Eve and her Alexandrine colleagues get caught up in the Egyptian revolutionary events that became the Arab Spring, she’s missing after a demonstration, and may well be dead. I suppose that Nicholas wanted to comment on the treatment of women in the Third World, or under Islam, but with the current anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria it just felt like name-checking the Arabs as the ‘usual suspects’ – mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Even with all those caveats, though, this was a great production. We were given a sumptuous presentation of a lot of thought-provoking material. There were (unsurprisingly) a high proportion of women in the audience, and they gave a very enthusiastic bout of applause at the end. I look forward to reading the text, giving myself more time to think about the arguments and references. I’ll be chasing them up on Google, too.