With impeccable timing, the week the National Science Foundation published the first picture of a black hole, Sydney Theatre Company opened its production of Mosquitoes, Lucy Kirkwood’s exploration of the gulf between supposedly rational scientific knowledge and the vagaries of the human heart. Kirkwood has never been afraid of confronting big themes. In Chimerica (2013), she examined the relationship between the two superpowers China and America, while in The Children (2016) she explored the culpability of the boomer generation for the present fragile state of the planet. So when she accepted a Sloane commission from the Manhattan Theatre Club to write a play with a scientific theme, she was not going to think small, and by setting her play around the disastrous first attempt to switch on the Large Hadron Collider in 2008, she has taken on the universe.
The heart of Mosquitoes (which had its première at London’s National Theatre in 2017) is the relationship between two sisters: Alice, a cerebral analytical particle physicist who has spent the past eleven years working at the LHC; and Jenny, her chaotic irrational sibling. As Jenny puts it, ‘I’m Forrest Gump and you’re the Wizard of fucking Oz.’ Kirkwood, writing as the Brexit disaster unfolded, has said one of the themes of the play is that ‘we can’t seem to separate fact from feeling’. Jenny’s susceptibility to fearmongering internet propositions infuriates her sister and causes a family tragedy that reverberates through the play.
As the moment of the switching on of the LHC approaches, Alice has to deal with an increasingly fractious family that includes her mother, Karen, an extremely distinguished scientist who feels that she was cheated out of the Nobel Prize won by her husband, and whose mind and body are rapidly decaying, and Alice’s troubled teenage son, Luke, who is making agonisingly tentative advances to his classmate Natalie. On the periphery is Alice’s partner, the kind but ineffectual Henri, whose inept attempts to calm the troubled waters only cause more strife. As this unruly mob circle, collide, and bounce off one other, a mysterious creature wanders unseen among them. This is Kirkwood’s most audacious creation, the Boson, a personification of the Higgs particle that may also be someone who vanished several years ago. In two major soliloquies, he is at first the voice of doom and finally that of hope and renewal.
In her usual way, Kirkwood is juggling an enormous number of themes and concepts: the power of fear and the power that can be gained from inducing fear in others: the scientific – how the universe began and how it might end, the results of colliding particles, dark holes, the nature of mass, and the position of women in the scientific hierarchy; the power of love, which for the unsentimental Karen is far from the most potent force in the cosmos ‘down the list after gravity and superglue’, but which Jenny proves can heal and redeem; and the difficulty for the young of navigating relationships as the internet generation. Occasionally, Kirkwood overplays her hand. The sudden introduction of Shiva and the Nataraja toward the play’s conclusion seems unnecessarily confounding for those who are unaware of the Indian government’s gift of a statue of the Lord of the Dance to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, but mostly Kirkwood gets the balance between the personal and conceptual right.
The STC has a good history with Kirkwood’s plays, and Jessica Arthur’s spare, restrained, elegant production continues that. She and designer Elizabeth Gadsby handle the width of the Drama Theatre’s problematic letter-box stage with aplomb. Together with Nick Schlieper’s lighting, she gives it a sense of depth much greater than it has. The cast is uniformly strong. Jenny is a gift of a role. Kirkwood can be a very funny writer. Jenny gets an almost unfair share of the best lines and Mandy McElhinney makes the most of them. McElhinney shows us the resentment that Jenny feels for the patronising attitude bordering on contempt with which the rest of the family treats her, but also Jenny’s aching need for their affection and approval. It is the chaotic Jenny who understands and empathises with her bewildered nephew Luke, and the scene in which she proves her love for him and his mother is true and moving.
The buttoned-up Alice is a much less brash creature, but Jaqueline McKenzie knows how to hold the stage and hold her own. As the play progresses, we become aware of the contradictory dimensions of this highly strung woman. The supposedly fact-obsessed scientist is also a Quaker but one who, in a devastating scene, advocates the survival of the fittest. McKenzie melds these facets into a believable whole.
Annie Byron is a formidable Karen, a bitter, self-obsessed monster who is unravelling before our eyes, but she cannot make credible the scene in which this woman, who needs a walker to move around, suddenly finds the strength to haul her solid daughter onto her lap and deliver her a maternal belting.
Charles Wu’s Luke and Nikita Waldron’s Natalie make even those of us whose adolescence was back in the Pleistocene Era remember the horrors of that time of life, while Jason Chong’s Boson has the authority and mystery of a successful magician.
Mosquitoes combines the epic sweep of Chimerica with the depth of characterisation of The Children and makes one fascinated to see what Kirkwood comes up with next.
Mosquitoes is being performed by Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama House, Sydney Opera House, from 8 April to 18 May 2019. Performance attended: April 12.