Benji Osugo, Christopher Wren, Daniel Jonusas, Edinburgh Fringe, Edmund Halley, Eleanor Burke, Enlightenment, History, Isaac Newton, Jared and Noah Liebmiller, Jared and Noah Liebmiller’s Atlas, Lydia Seed, Mermaids Performing Arts Fund, Robert Hooke, Spaces on North Bridge, Theatre Review
It was with feelings of tremendous guilt that I tiptoed into Jared and Noah Liebmiller’s “Atlas” at the Space on North Bridge this evening. The play comes from the University of St Andrews. There are four Enlightenment males – Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley, Christopher Wren, and Isaac Newton – and they are all, for this day and age, hopelessly pale and stale. No modern university curriculum would be seen dead with these four on it. Fortunately, there are details to gladden the multicultural heart. Halley has an afro – and both Newton and Hooke sport breasts – so “Atlas” salvages a little morality from amidst so much Enlightenment darkness.
Let us pursue my joke more seriously. Hooke (Eleanor Burke) is that most postmodern of phenomena, the marginalised voice whose name and contribution have been traditionally squashed out of the history books. “Atlas” considers the rival claims between Hooke and Newton (Lydia Seed) over which one of them had really discovered gravity. This is certainly interesting but it is also in danger of shrinking the Enlightenment, transforming it into something like a Silicon Valley copyright dispute or everyday office jealousies. Is all of modern science merely standing on the shoulders of egos?
Dramatically, the densely argued intellectualism of “Atlas” seems to take Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons as its template. The whole play is as dry as a biscuit, though it is impressive in how strictly it concentrates on what it wants to. Lesser, crowd-pleasing playwrights would have made mention of Newton’s alchemy or at least his apple. “Atlas” is at times, however, a mite too spare. The writers have missed a golden opportunity with Christopher Wren (Daniel Jonusas), an influential building magnate with a virile blond haircut:
Christopher Wren @realChristopherWren 2h THIS BUILDING is going to be SO GREAT. #Losers say St Paul’s too ornate. #Fakenews.
Both Wren and Halley (Benji Osugo) are creditably acted but we are never allowed to set foot in these characters’ rich and expansive hinterlands. Only when Halley speaks of his dreams does the play begin to breathe more freely. Hooke’s fur-lined usurer’s robes are nicely suggestive of conventional depictions of Shylock and his troubled psyche. Yet this hardly explains Hooke; it is not so much that he is a mystery as that we never get to know him.
Sometimes a minor thing can spoil a play or illustrate a greater truth about it. In Halley’s hair are two green wisps that look like tiny pieces of plastic Christmas tree. Brooding on this, I probably missed out on splendid passages of dialogue.
Halley admits to privately thinking that progress is made by the few. It is surely the attitudes that these bigwigs had held in common that had made them remarkable and revolutionary. In plunging down the Newton-Hooke wrangle, we distinctly mirror Hooke’s own feat of discovering unattractive things at the bottom of the microscope. Both Hooke and Newton are to all intents and purposes sincere in thinking that gravity is theirs. The hostility between them must be due simply to pride or a lack of emotional intelligence. This might be faithful to history – in plays such as this one, everything is usually true – but we will never get on top of history if we cannot see the big picture.