FringeReview UK 2018
An Experiment with an Air Pump
ACT Brighton Diploma in Acting
Festival: FringeReview UK
I suspect that, like me, a large part of the audience were attracted to the play by its title. ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ is quite a famous painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, an eighteenth century artist who produced a series of works portraying the intellectual and technical discoveries of The Enlightenment. Almost as well-known as ‘An Air Pump’ is ‘A Philosopher Lectures on the Orrery’.
Both paintings depict a scientist – male, naturally – demonstrating a scientific principle. ‘An Air Pump’ shows the air being pumped out of a glass chamber containing a small bird, which is dying of asphyxiation. ‘The Orrery’ has a mechanical model of the Solar System – the Sun at the centre with the planets on concentric metal rings surrounding it. In both cases the demonstration is watched with rapt attention by an audience of half a dozen or so, children and adults, clustered close round with their faces lit by a single lamp or candle at the centre. This dramatic light effect was the artist’s trademark, and it gives wonderfully dramatic modelling to the characters’ features. Powerful, unforgettable; rather like a painting by Caravaggio – but this is our own Joseph Wright of Derby.
The acting area at The Lantern had been set up in traverse, with the audience on both sides. No set to speak of, just some tables and chairs. And very simple lighting, only a few lamps to catch the actors in a fashion that looked very like one of Wright’s works. As the play started a young woman in modern dress told us that she’d always admired ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’, mainly “because there was a scientist in it”. It seems that it had been influential to her own choice of a scientific career, and she directed our attention to a large image of the painting projected onto a white sheet hung at one end of the space. As she talked, another actor gradually dressed her in eighteenth century clothing – a long dress covering her modern skirt and a shawl placed over her shoulders.
Suddenly – the white sheet dropped away, and a whole bunch of eighteenth century people tumbled through the opening into the acting space. An amazingly dramatic effect, as the painting seemed to come to life in front of us. Gold patterned frock-coats and breeches for the men; long dresses, a lot more sober, for the women. Then, to complete the effect, they recreated the painting’s grouping around a table at the other end of the space, where Fenwick, the head of the household, carried out the air pump experiment for real, in front of his wife, his daughters and two scientific colleagues. It was the younger daughter’s pet bird that was used in the procedure, and she was horrified . . .
Fenwick and his friends, Roget and Armstrong, are gentleman scientists, the sort of men who set up the Royal Society to promote the values and discoveries of The Enlightenment. Their scientific curiosity is quite obsessive – Fenwick is as oblivious to his daughter’s distress as he is to the rioting Newcastle workers who are threatening to attack his house. Science is the only thing that has any interest or value to these men.
So Shelagh Stephenson’s play is about science, the kind of people who are drawn to practice it, and the effects their discoveries have on the people around them. She’s set up a parallel situation, with another family in the same house overlooking the river Tyne, two hundred years later in 1999. This two century gap allows Stephenson to examine the enormous changes in society over that period, but also to point up those things that haven’t changed.
It’s a very feminist piece. John Prideaux’s Fenwick, in a wonderfully patrician performance, constantly patronises his wife Susannah, belittling her intellect or simply ignoring her. Claire Pontet-Piccolomini gave a moving performance as a woman slowly turning to alcohol as a solution to her frustrations. Then between scenes she would change costume – the long eighteenth century dress must have concealed jeans underneath – to reappear as another Susannah, a twentieth century Susannah this time, a research scientist working on human genetics.
This Susannah is an intellectual powerhouse – she’s developed a very precise means of detecting genetic abnormalities in the foetus, that will determine whether an individual will develop any of a wide range of conditions, anything from spina bifida to severe depression. In another neat reversal of eras, Susannah is the family breadwinner here; her husband Tom has recently lost his job.
The quest for knowledge – but are these discoveries value-free? Susannah is going to use her research working for her sister Kate’s company, who plan to monetize the results, creating commercial products that could allow parents to choose whether to abort a foetus, but also potentially selling the genetic information to third parties like insurance companies or private healthcare providers. As Kate says – “Discovery is neutral, Ethics is for philosophers.”
Modern sister Kate was played by Martina Greenwood, a dynamic performance that matched her equally spirited portrayal of Harriet, eighteenth century Fenwick’s younger daughter. (More quick costume changes as the action moved between centuries, very effectively carried out by the company). Fenwick’s other daughter is Maria, and she’s got a fiancé travelling in India, which we learn from Maria reading out their letters. Edward (the fiancé) is accompanied by native bearers, one of whom gets trampled by an elephant – so inconvenient – and The Collector. This man would have been the British official in charge of extracting taxes from the Indian population. Discovery is neutral – but those scientific and technical discoveries enabled the British to conquer and govern an entire sub-continent.
‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ is about education, and how information isn’t the same thing as truth. It’s education that has given the modern Susannah and Kate lives and careers that would be inconceivable to their eighteenth century equivalents. But it’s not equally spread – twentieth century Susannah and Tom have a builder working on the house, an eastern European called Phil. Phil’s an intelligent and practical man, but he doesn’t have the educational underpinning to distinguish fact from rumour, and so he’s prey to the whole gamut of modern conspiracy theories such as UFOs and alien abductions.
The play’s about class, too. Fenwick and Susannah have a servant, a Scottish woman called Isobel. Unusually for the times, and her class, she can read and write, and she has a fierce sense of her own identity and independence. She’s also a hunchback – which might explain the self-reliance she displays. Fenwick’s colleague Armstrong, a physician, who is of course an upper-class gentleman, is fascinated by Isobel’s physical condition and attempts to seduce her so that he can examine her naked body close up. After all, she’s only a maid . . .
Some gentleman! Aaron Sherwood was very believable as a man whose elegant vowels couldn’t quite conceal the fact that he was a cad – his colleague Roget actually calls him “a cunt!”. And it ends in tragedy, as Isobel hangs herself when she realises she has been deceived. Shelagh Stephenson is a very clever and subtle writer – it seems to me that these events act as a mirror to the action in the painting, and with the air-pump experiment that’s carried out at the start of the play. The bird dies because it’s had its oxygen removed, and so it can’t survive. Although Isobel was ‘just a maid’, she possessed her pride and her sense of herself as an individual. Armstrong’s behaviour has destroyed all that, and so the woman can’t face living any more.
In the painting, the young girl on the right is weeping at the fate of the bird. That’s the message throughout this piece – the obsession with attaining knowledge can so easily trump human feelings and decency.
Shelagh Stephenson has packed a lot of different themes into this play, but they are so deftly handled that the result is coherent and very satisfying. A great choice for the ACT Diploma in Acting company to have attempted, and they’ve carried it off brilliantly. From now on, whenever I look at Joseph Wright’s great painting, I’ll have this performance running alongside it in my head. The artist gave me the image, and now these actors have brought it to life.
(p.s. I’ve just realised that I’ve written this whole review without mentioning the actor who played Isobel – the maid. How’s that for twenty-first century class blindness? She is Kayleigh Stubbs and she gave us a beautiful, heart-rending performance. Sorry, Kayleigh.)