FringeReview UK 2017
Terry Johnson’s 1982 Insignificance is directed by David Mercatali in Arcola’s Studio 1 in this neatly typically-stripped Arcola design by Max Dorey, lit by Richard Williamson. Dinah Mullen provides ominous chords at points of disassociation. Megan Rarity’s costumes strike 1953, with particular emphasis on The Actress’s theme of white.
Cue a particular spike in US government paranoia, and it’s perhaps odds-on that Terry Johnson’s 1982 Insignificance – here directed by David Mercatali in Arcola’s Studio 1 – will come out to play on it. Set in the paranoiac anti-Communist witch-hunt climax of 1953, it’s specifically a couple of days after the opening night of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, something which features heavily. And not only because The Professor (aka Einstein) is being threatened by the Senator (aka Joe McCarthy) to appear before the House Un-American Activities or perhaps his precious Grand Unification Theory papers will be confiscated for good. The Senator’s keen on learning words: most, he believes he’s a solipsist. Despite all his hunts for Soviets in and under the bed, he’s often convinced only he exists.
It’s the first of the jokes that set up the wild orthodoxies of twentieth century physics in this neatly typically-stripped production at the Arcola designed by Max Dorey: a straightforward hotel bedroom with more elaborate balcony, lit by Richard Williamson for night, dawn and those moments of illumination. Dinah Mullen provides ominous chords at points of disassociation. Megan Rarity’s costumes strike 1953, with particular emphasis on The Actress’s theme of white.
The Actress (aka Monroe) arrives pursued by the Ball Player (aka Joe DiMaggio). She’s after knowledge too, but unlike The Senator eventually realizes it’s not the same as understanding. Famously she wishes to explain to the Professor she understands the Special Theory of Relativity and with the set piece of two trains two flashlights and a figurine of Charlie Chaplin she does so (she’s aware of her own clown-like self-parody too).
But does she understand it? Not the General one she adds, and here we get that cross-referencing of theory with farce. The Actress wants to prove her intellectual abilities though often uses sex as a mode of defining or bartering. The Ball Player’s relation to The Actress is hyper-conventional: he wants children to extend his fading significance. But when she tells him she’s pregnant he’s fallen asleep, and by the time he could hear it, something irrrevocable’s happened, a kind of collision with The Senator swerves the ball.
Oliver Hemborough’s slowly crumbling identity is exposed not by domestic strife but his meeting with the Senator. Hemborough plays on the character’s uncertainties, ready to crumble machismo in a wall of Brylcream.
There’s rich comedy in plotting the way relations between all four are driven by farce into forces of physics, and visa versa. The Professor succumbs to The Actress finally but they’re interrupted by the Ball Player and then when the actress is alone The Senator mistakes the Actress for a double of herself whom he can abuse in the way he threatens everyone, including The Professor, though knowing there’s nothing to discover at this stage of rabid anti-Communist obsessions. Tom Mannion plays with menace though not the bullish danger out of control that some bring to this. He draws back from parodying the role, making him chillingly believable as a Senator, not a wholly out-of-control sociopath.
The farce of the famous being mistaken for some double ties in beautifully with an electron being in two places at once, though even better is the cat The Professor has rescued from his friend Schrodinger. Schrodinger’s famously suggested sealing a cat and an isotope leaking poison; so the cat like the electron might be dead and alive – no-one knows. The Professor finally brings in the covered-up cat basket. The Senator’s solipsism denies the Ball Player might even exist because he can predict his every move. The infuriated Ball Player now challenges him offstage to denote what he’s doing. The audience by now know he’ll guess it. It’s the Schrodinger and Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg rolled into one (is the Senator influencing the experiment by observing it, as he states, even though he physically cannot?). The Actress brings up the latter theory herself. Asked by the Professor if she believes it, she has to answer ‘I don’t know yet.’ It’s not just a cheap joke: We know by now the Actress is inhabiting a cloud of unknowing.
Simon Rouse lends a brooding stillness and visible thought to The Professor, watch always stuck at 8.15, the time of the Hiroshima bomb that ‘burned children’ as he reminds The Actress. But he’s also learned comic aplomb and isn’t above borrowing. ‘Because it is my name’ he ripostes to the Senator, who won’t have seen that quote from The Crucible, that clarion call against McCarthyism everywhere. The Professor makes sure The Actress does know about it though and points her in Miller’s direction. His other heroic act is a little unbelievable, perhaps, but his adjustment to The Actress’ humanity is touching, even if he wishes to stop relating.
Alice Bailey Johnson’s Actress manages both the quicksilver rather than platinum brilliance of Monroe’s charm; but more, she intimates her physical ailments, vulnerability and after the Senator’s been, an extraordinary sad determination to cover up pain and start over.
This masterly ensemble piece affirms relativity as a human agency, for which physics provides analogues but no solutions. Its historical grounding does seem to ensure its revivals – which need no excuse – arrive at a time when paranoias everywhere in the West are being examined. Insignificance will be signifying for a long half-life, and this pacey production is first-rate: Mercatali and his cast ensure its probing at fragility won’t be lost in brilliant collisions.