Brighton Fringe 2014
What would you need if you were going to put on a show about the life and discoveries of Albert Einstein? A difficult project – you’d be talking about events that happened almost a hundred years ago, and trying to explain stuff that almost everybody finds completely baffling. Not an easy pitch to make – "… and you want to put this on at The Fringe, to compete with all the stand-up comedians and music events? You must be crazy. Don’t call us … "
Actually, the first things you’d need would be a Darth Vader light sabre and a large can of talcum powder. Plus three University professors and a world-famous science writer as a peer review team to get the science right. Oh, and a big white bed sheet and an electronic piano keyboard would come in handy, too.
You’d put it on at The Old Courthouse, where the shallow stage and incredibly steep rake of seating give the feeling of a Victorian lecture theatre – the kind of place where anatomy students watch dissections – but you’d choose to do the show as … a musical comedy.
John Hinton is one of those people I hate – a quarter of a century younger than me and at least three times as bright. He’s done what shouldn’t be possible with ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking – he’s made the theories of Relativity, both Special Relativity and General Relativity (you knew there were two theories, of course?) understandable to a Fringe audience. Relatively understandable, anyway …
Hinton’s tall and thin, with a moustache and a great mop of dark hair. He wore baggy trousers and a jacket with sleeves that were too short. The overall impression was rather like an amiable scarecrow as he jumped around, gripping the podium to read his notes, or leaning forward at the front of the stage to banter with the people in the first few rows.
For this man can really work an audience. He was outside in the lobby while we were still queuing, shaking hands – "Welcome!, Welcome!, So glad you could come to my lecture". (‘Velcome!, Velcome’, in his mock-German accent). Once we were seated, his wife Elsa came in and took up position at the keyboard on the other side of the stage. Jo Eagle is much smaller than John Hinton, a pretty woman in a white blouse and long black skirt, wearing a cloche hat. She’s a musician as well as an actress, and she played Elsa with big loving smiles as she provided the musical accompaniment to the show.
Einstein started by giving a speech of thanks for being offered a post at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University. It’s 1933, and he’s a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, but Elsa accompanied him on the keyboard and the whole speech was done as a musical number. They did this throughout the show, rattling off chunks of physics, philosophy or politics as songs – it’s not ‘West Side Story’, but it was done very effectively and kept the story buzzing.
Working the audience. Hinton got two people out of the front row, a woman and the man next to me who’d come in after we’d started (never go in late to a John Hinton show!), and got them up on stage as if they were on a date. The possibility of sex got our interest – but what he was really showing us was the ‘Internal Reference Frame’ that every observer has. He had them running towards each other as beams of light, and it turns out that the speed of light is constant, but what you see as an observer – your internal reference frame – depends on how fast you are travelling. As you go faster, time slows down and space contracts. (Now you see why they needed the University professors on board – and the retractable light sabre…).
In just a couple of minutes, and with no pain, Hinton had given us the basic principles of Special Relativity and I think I understand it. Later he did the same for General Relativity – the essence of this one being that the phenomenon of Gravity is due to massive bodies causing warps and curvatures in Space-Time. If you’ve got an enormous bed sheet to represent spacetime, and a couple of bodies – and there were plenty of those in the audience – you can produce a very convincing simulation. Hinton told us that the effect was finally demonstrated by measuring the deflection of starlight as it passed the Sun – but I don’t advise trying that one at home …
I wondered when we’d get to Einstein’s 1905 work on the equivalence of matter and energy, that’s famously expressed as E=MC². The calculations were done with the help of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, and for this part Jo Eagle reappeared in a chequered headscarf and a frown that would chill you right across the stage (the marriage ended in a very acrimonious divorce). Eagle also played Einstein’s mother later, in a bonnet that time – are there no limits to this woman’s versatility?
They did the E=MC² one as a rap, with Mileva bashing out the rhythm on the keyboard and Einstein making the jerky hand movements to spell out the equation. Real rappin’ moves, Hinton bringing up three fingers on one hand and twisting his shoulders to the rhythm, elbows in, legs pumping up and down – "Make an ‘E’, make an ‘M’ …". Ice T, Jay Z, Ali G – eat your hearts out!
Hysterical. And then the mood turned sombre with the Second World War and the realisation that what had seemed purely theoretical science – matter is frozen energy – could be used to make enormously powerful bombs. Hinton gave us the anguish that Einstein felt at his responsibility for this, and his decision to write a letter to President Roosevelt urging the Americans to start working on the Atomic Bomb. His hair turned grey as Elsa tipped talc over his head. Later she held up newspapers so that we could read the headlines about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Einstein moaned to himself – "Two hundred thousand souls … two hundred thousand souls …"
It’s the changes of mood and focus which make this production so engaging. We’re convulsed in laughter and then very quickly we’re almost in tears. Hinton gave us the complete Einstein – the emotional lover and husband, the analytical theoretician, the moralist, the philosopher. He makes a very cool rap artist, but later he grips the podium and stares out at us and he’s the Einstein the German scientist – "You are here to learn! "
He’s really at home with the science, too. There are two doors at the back of the stage, and at one point Einstein expected his wife to enter through one of them. She actually came on stage through the other door, so the audience saw her before Einstein did – which got a laugh. Hinton didn’t miss a beat – "That’s quantum uncertainty for you." he commented (which got a bigger laugh). A bit of an in-joke, really, but at the end they handed out sheets with short definitions of the scientific terms that they’d used. Great for following up the ideas we’d been shown, but if you want one, you’ll have to go and see the show. Relatively straightforward ?