Nearer the Gods, the new play from David Williamson, has been described as ‘a big departure’ from his wonted repertoire of Australian middle-class studies. It departs from contemporary Australia for seventeenth-century England in exploring the events that lead to the publication of Isaac Newton’s revolutionary text Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), and how it almost didn’t happen. It is hard to imagine that a new Williamson play would be considered a risk – even in an unconventional performance space. As the first production mounted in the newly refurbished corner stage of the Billie Brown Theatre, Nearer the Gods is an experiment that exploits, thematically and technically, the dynamic lighting, sound, and vast space of the impressive new stage.
Directed by Sam Strong, the play concerns the pursuits of the astronomer Edmund Halley (played with great passion by Matthew Backer) to publish Newton’s Principia despite spiritual, social, and financial adversity. In the demanding role of Isaac Newton, Rhys Muldoon is a standout; he plays the mad scientist with unbridled spirit. Backer and Muldoon encapsulate the combative, often frustrating relationship between Halley and Newton with humour and urgency.
While this relationship lies at the heart of the play, there are larger questions at stake, as might be expected in a play about the nature of the universe. Nearer the Gods looks at the people behind remarkable discoveries and at the human drama that complicates the pursuit of Newton’s three laws of motion. This human drama is explored to striking effect in the relationship between Halley and his wife, Mary, who is played with enthusiasm by Kimie Tsukakoshi. In his quest to publish Principia, Edmund reveals his religious doubts to Mary. A devout Christian, she wrestles with his opposition to the Church of England but helps him to pursue the science nonetheless. Edmund’s belief in the Principia, as an atheist, and his faith in Newton’s science, despite his imperfect understanding of it, suggests that faith in science is not altogether different from a faith in a higher power. Sam Strong has said that David Williamson (who has now been staging plays since 1970), has a unique ability to tell stories that need to be told. While I was not completely convinced while this story needed to be told now, it could be argued that questions of faith versus science will always be relevant. We cannot deduce the answers to questions of religion (or science) without a certain kind of faith.
William McInnes, playing the enigmatic Charles II – Newton’s patron – with perfect comedic pomp, delivers a sombre statement that speaks to the human desire to create a legacy – ‘We all want to be remembered for something’. This statement could not have had such an impact without the crew’s incredible artistry. Steve Francis provides a subtle soundscape to articulate the light and the dark, with the soft and eerie background of a ticking clock complementing the moments when Newton would frantically calculate in silence. Francis book-ends both acts with baroque music.
The choreography, directed by Nerida Matthaei, works well amid the basic architecture of the set, which comprises several tables and chairs on wheels. The ‘movement chorus’ of supporting actors (Daniel Murphy, Hugh Parker, Colin Smith, Lucas Stibbard, and Hsiao-Ling Tang) sweeps on and off the stage, spinning the simple wooden tables and chairs in synchronised movements reminiscent of planetary pathways in motion. The momentum of the script and all of the action we can see has been carefully considered for its allegory to the laws of motion and to the concepts of force. Not a single performer was out of place.
The most notable feature of this production is David Walters’s lighting design. This is fitting, given that the story is set at a time when the scientific nature of light was beginning to be understood for the first time. Throughout the performance, the black gloss of the walls and stage floor are used to reflect ambient low lights, smoke, and haze, but in just the right places; the most important moments are amplified, from the hidden rainbow of colours concealed behind the stage wall to show off the reflecting telescope, to an incredible ceiling-to-floor view of the night sky, with the stars lit up like diamonds.
Nowhere was Walters’s design more effective than in the luminous spectacle that was the cosmos, as Newton sits by the small light of a fire lamp and Edmund dances around him like a planet moving around the sun, pulled and yet repelled by the gravity of the physicist’s madness and genius.
At a philosophical level, Nearer the Gods doesn’t ask questions that haven’t been posed before. But it doesn’t follow that such questions shouldn’t be asked again. Nearer the Gods is entertaining and often funny. More than that, it is always curious in its pursuits. Visually, it is a radiant spectacle.
Nearer the Gods, presented by the Queensland Theatre, continues at the Billie Brown Theatre until 3 November 2018. Performance attended: October 12.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund and the ABR Patrons.