Arcola Theatre, London – until 18 November 2017
THE SCIENTIST AND THE SEX SYMBOL, IN A PARANOID WORLD… The uneasy 1950s: Albert Einstein is exiled in America and called to appear before the unAmerican Activities committee for the “are you or have you ever been..?” question. But he has barely got rid of Senator McCarthy before he gets a surprise visit from a restless, intellectually ambitious Marilyn Monroe who wants to talk Relativity. And whose furious husband Joe Di Maggio will shortly hammer on the door to confront her. Terry Johnson’s 1982 imagining, rooted in history, scientific thought and profound human need, still sparks brightly.
Because any good play explodes into fresh topicalities. This imagined night in 1954 has been a 1985 film and a few revivals (notably one set intimately in an actual hotel room). But here and now, in the almost equally intimate Arcola atmosphere, it radiates current themes. The age of nuclear dread is back, after all, and Einstein’s regret about what his discoveries led to, sharp at the play’s end, is for us too.
America is again producing rightist thugs with a morbid dread of the unAmerican world; only instead of McCarthyist accusations today we have fake news. And – God help us – the poisonous topic of celebrity and exploited, dishonoured female beauty could hardly be more bang-on.
David Mercatali’s production is beautifully acted by all four of the – teasingly unnamed – protagonists. Simon Rouse as The Professor has a deceptively vague but suddenly sharp, always kindly sweetness: Alice Bailey Johnson’s breathy Monroe develops convincingly – dropping the famous littlegirl tones – into the restive thwarted intelligence Johnson imagines. Her expatiation on the mysteries of relativity with balloons, toy trains, Mickey Mouse ears and hand-torches is entrancing, her final distress dark and wrenching.
Tom Mannion is a superbly crass Senator Mc Carthy (“the whole damn war [WW2] was a Soviet plot”). Oliver Hembrough as Joe di Maggio hardly stops chewing and popping his Hubba Bubba gum, even when threatening the other men or expressing husbandly outrage (“never put a woman on a pedestal, it makes it easy for her to kick your teeth down your throat”. He keeps the gum going, whether wooing his wife, entering into a bizarre philosophical debate on subjective reality with the Senator, or enumerating how many bubblegum card collections he figured in over his glory decades on the baseball field. Einstein can only compete by citing his appearance in the Great Scientific Discoveries series.
For all the comedy, they each fill the parts with humanity, moving the atmosphere away from mere Stoppardian clevertalk (though I do love the Schrodinger’s cat joke). The sparring wit is never far from a kind of sweetness and sadness . Especially from the Professor – “”I want to finish my work and slip off the edge of this dreary painful planet as Columbus sadly never did..”. But it is also there in Joe Di Maggio ‘s hurt cry to his damaged, tricky wife – “how can a man make love to a wound?”. That turns sympathy on a sixpence: he is no longer just an ape in a suit.
By the way the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, lately adopted to ginger-up into that baggy Simon Stephens romcom, is here a deft grace note at the end : it reflects Monroe’s victimhood as an object of fame, since “the fact of observing something changes it ”. Not, in her case, for the better.
020 7503 1646 to 18 nov