Nearer the Gods | Ensemble Theatre

Image by Prudence Upton

David Williamson’s script comes at a time of great uncertainty as the world continues to navigate the pandemic and the increasing devastation of climate change while also attempting to reconcile the human disasters of war, greed, and power. In 17th century England, the state of things was similarly bleak.

In 1684, the British Royal Society was doing its darnedest to work out an explanation for the elliptical movement of the planets. The greatest minds of the age were on the case and they had the support of King Charles II (Sean O’Shea) but they couldn’t crack it. So they reluctantly turned to reclusive and abusive Isaac Newton (Gareth Davies) who took the opportunity to beef up his invention of calculus and write his laws of motion. It was one of the greatest scientific discoveries to date, explaining not just the planets but all movement everywhere across the universe, but a petty rivalry with fellow scientist Robert Hooke (cast as Shan-Ree Tan but in this performance played by understudy Claudia Ware) meant that Newton’s discovery was under threat of remaining unpublished and unknown. Williamson’s script brings to the stage the very real drama surrounding Newton’s greatest work to explore the weaknesses and failures of humans as well as the deep desire for meaning and remembrance in the face of death and disaster.

While set over 300 years in the past, costume designer Hugh O’Connor kept the characters in modern dress which meant their discussions of the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague of London didn’t feel at all far from our current concerns. Director Janine Watson also used the staging to represent the cyclical nature of time with the actors circling the stage like the planets circle the sun or the hands circle a clock-face. But even human nature appeared cyclical and Williamson’s script drew on jealousy, rivalries, and fear to paint the complex picture of these interconnected characters. The circumstances of poverty, pride, and pettiness rammed up against each other with, at times, great humour and, at others, great poignancy. Underneath the action, Williamson reached for a discussion of faith v reason which didn’t quite achieve fruition but King Charles II’s line, “We all want to be remembered for something”, resonated throughout the characters, justifying their motivations, particularly as they stood as small men below the vast expanse of the universe. As they watched the world around them burn, and their loved ones succumb to illness, the solidity of society and progress became unstable, unreliable, and they had to grapple with their own legacy and what they will leave behind.

Despite playing men of the mind, the actors embraced the physicality of these characters to emphasise their overwhelming passions and inject a bit of comic absurdity. Rowan Davie as Edmund Halley, the man who brought Newton back into the light and personally saved his publication, was loose and fresh-faced on stage which made his slow compression under the demands of Hooke, Newton, and the King particularly tangible. Next to him, Davies balanced the tight, concentrated intellect of Newton against his bursting eccentricities and pathological foibles for a compelling and humane portrayal. O’Shea added humour with his flamboyant and fickle King Charles II, while Sam O’Sullivan and Jemwel Danao brought much-appreciated versatility to their side characters, filling out the 17th century world. Interestingly, the extremes of Ware’s Hooke and Violette Ayad’s portrayal of Halley’s wife Mary were good touchstones for the competing ideals of power/compassion, honour/love, science/faith. Watching Halley wheel between the two and failing to satisfy either provided a central personal conflict around which the future of scientific inquiry, continental relations, and social struggles could swirl.

As the Prime Minister declares the recent Queensland flooding a state of emergency a week too late and states across the country drop mask mandates with some of the highest rates of infection in the last three years, it feels pretty grim to watch how 300 years hasn’t changed how people prioritise short-term, individual gain over the rest of us. In that case, perhaps Robert Hooke is a cautionary tale. After all, have you ever heard of him?

Nearer the Gods is running at Ensemble Theatre from March 4th – April 23rd

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