Science, Williamson style

Nearer the Gods (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 6 – November 3

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David Williamson’s “Nearer the Gods” intriguingly promotes itself as a show about the politics of 17th Century science. This appears affirmed by its pre-show Purcell Chamber Music sounds and when Isaac Newton (Rhys Muldoon) appears seated at a table centre stage, he is wearing a periwig and dressed extravagantly according to the play’s Restoration era setting.

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As he greets the audience, however, he informs us that the show won’t be performed in period costume after all. This emerges to be a wise directorial decision as it does not distract from the story and its essentially human conflicts, both internally and interpersonally.

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Under Sam Strong’ direction, what follows is fascinating, as feats of human endeavour often are to those distanced from their time. It begins in 1684, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, with Robert Hooke (Colin Smith) and Christopher Wren (Hugh Parker), two of London’s Royal Society’s most prominent scientists and architectural collaborators/co-designers of several important works in post-fire London (including the Monument to the city’s Great Fire), being called to meet with King Charles II (William McIinnes) about investigations into the forces of planetary motion.

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Also at the meeting is astronomer, Edmund Halley (Matthew Backer) who then travels to Cambridge to meet with reclusive professor Isaac Newton, who it is rumoured, might have something interesting to tell him about celestial mechanics. And so the story proper becomes about physicist Isaac Newton, known in his day as a natural philosopher. More particularly, it is about the personality behind the Physics, especially of this complex and quite difficult but brilliant man, estimated to have an IQ level of 190.

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The rivalry between Newton and Hooke (presented here as a vengeful and vain antagonist, despite Newton’s own uncompromising approach and inability to accept criticism) is evidenced in some bitter clashes as thy two great scientific minds, compete to be reputed as the greatest thinker of the age.

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Act Two then follows Halley’s push to have Newton’s 1687 Principia book (now regarded as the most important work in the history of physics) published, despite opposition from within King Charles’ Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, the oldest national scientific institution in the world.

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Halley is a young and eager offsider to the cantankerous Newton, inspired by the genius’ enumeration of his three laws of motion as explanation of universal gravitation and excited in the discovery of new truths, even if they might be at the expense of his religion and in opposition to his wife’s (Kimia Tsukakoshi) essential beliefs system. Indeed, the compatibility or otherwise of faith and reason serves as an ongoing and enduring theme that enhances the play’s resonance not just as a historical artefact account but from a modern philosophical perspective.

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There are no weak links in this stellar cast. Becker’s Halley is sprightly, generous and secure. He is not only a likeable and relatable protagonist, but absolutely nails the funniest line of the show in light of his own legacy in his namesake periodic comet. And Muldoon is brilliant as the deeply troubled Newton, obsessed by and obsessive about his work, and his conflict with Hooke. Also of note is McInnes who makes for an imposing King Charles II, cocksure in his strut about the place, but also serving as a patron of knowledge, eager to embrace reason as the way forward to increase human knowledge.

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Certainly, “Nearer the Gods” is a play of big ideas. It is, accordingly a dialogue-heavy work. Still, though there is a lot of movement in interaction with its simple stage design, afforded by the all-new Bille Brown theatre, which is at-once new and shiny, but also with surprise nooks and crannies. And the spectacle of an otherwise-dark sparkling starlit theatre is a breathtaking Act Two highlight.

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“Nearer the Gods” is a fascinating work from Australia’s most commercially successful playwright. Beyond calculus and scientific formulas, it serves mostly as a celebration of human achievement. And there is a shared excitement in witness, albeit only dramatically, of ambitions being realised that will form the foundation of countless human advancements. And if nothing else, it will leave you wondering why exactly it is that we want to know why.

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