Arcola Theatre, 21st October 2017
Regular readers of this blog (don’t be shy) will know that I adore the work of Terry Johnson. As do a lot of proper theatre critic types. I also have a very soft spot for the Arcola. With this revival of Insignificance the combination delivers.
However, I see from some other reviews that not all are persuaded. This is par for the course with Terry Johnson. I think the way he mixes high and low culture, and the multiplicity of meaning he inserts into his texts can leave some audience members a bit cold. He is, as my mum would have said, a “clever clogs” and his humour is “knowing” with a capital K. In this play he is happy to trade ideas and words for the dramatic arc. The comedy, which often leavens Mr Johnson’s work, is less prominent in Insignificance and is downplayed by David Mercatali’s measured direction.
The Professor, played stoically by Simon Rouse, is in a hotel room, (Max Dorey’s utilitarian design copes with the Arcola space), working on the nature of space-time. He is interrupted by the Senator, played by Tom Mannion with increasing venom, who tries to bully him into testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Professor refuses. The Senator leaves. The Actress (an excellent Alice Bailey Johnson who just happens to be the playwright’s daughter) appears in a recognisable white dress and, initially, trademark breathless voice. She and the Professor discuss the nature of fame and celebrity, she demonstrates, in ecstatic fashion, the theory of relativity using toy props in the room and then she attempts to seduce the Professor. They are interrupted by the Ball-Player played by Oliver Hembrough, who is not best pleased. The Professor leaves. The Ball-Player sleeps through the Actress’s announcement that she is pregnant. Next morning the Senator returns, mistakes the Actress for a prostitute and hits her. The Professor returns, chucks his work out of the window to thwart the Senator who leaves. the Ball-Player returns. The Actress miscarries and tells the Ball-Player their marriage is over. The Actress and Professor remain. The time approaches 8.15pm. The Professor visualises his recurring nightmare of nuclear destruction.
Now when you put it like I appreciate it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. No so. Also it seems to me there is plenty going on in the play, it is just that it is confined to the one room. (Nic Roeg’s famous film version is obviously less claustrophobic). These characters are, of course, Albert Einstein, Joe McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. None of this happened. But it might have done. That is the whole point. I never understand why people get worked up by drama which “strains credulity”. It is a play. It’s not real.
We see the world of science, politics, film and sport collide. These people were about as famous as it was possible to get in 1954 when the play is set. They still were in 1982 when the play was premiered at the Royal Court. And they still are today, notably in the case of Monroe and Einstein. The influence of fame and celebrity on the cultural superstructure is arguably even more profound. There was an actor in the White House when the play was written, there is a clown now. As Mr Johnson observes in a world which worships at the altar of celebrity society will fail to “question the power of the invisible”.
First and foremost the play is a meditation on the nature of fame, as many of Mr Johnson’s plays are. We think we know the public personae of these people and what they represent but we see very different identities in private. The Professor has sexual urges (Ms Monroe allegedly wanted to sleep with him). The Actress reveals a prodigious intellect in sharp contrast to Ms Monroe’s screen image. The Senator is an aggressive ideologue, as we liberal types would presuppose, but we shouldn’t forget that he mobilised an entire legislature to let him pursue his grotesque witch-hunt. The Ball-Player expresses his own renown in the most banal way through the greater number of bubble gum cards with his image when compared to peers. He too is more intelligent than the jock he presents but he sees little advantage in revealing this.
Mr Johnson also has some fun with other mind-bending scientific ideas with an off-stage cat belonging to a certain Mr Schrodinger and the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg. Science plays are ten a penny these days, not surprising as dramatists are creatures of wonder, but Terry Johnson was an early protagonist. He also squeezes in a Crucible gag. More moving are the Actress’s sorrow at her own objectification, the Ball-Player’s yearning for domestic normality and an heir and the literal cloud that hung over the Professor’s head in the latter years of his life as he reflected on the destructive power his science unleashed.
So there you have it. I would get it if this doesn’t float your boat but if any of this sounds remotely interesting please give it a go. You might be a convert.