Arcola Theatre, London – until 18 November 2017
“Knowledge is nothing without understanding.”
I loved chemistry at school, enjoyed biology too but for some reason, my brain could never wrap itself around physics. So when two characters in Terry Johnson‘s play Insignificance started discussing the specific nature of the theory of relativity – albeit through the medium of toy trains and helium-filled balloons – I was thrown back to the mild panic of Mr Byrchall’s classroom and the general feel of ‘I just don’t get it!’.
But Insignificance is not a play about physics and the two characters aren’t just any random people. It’s 1954 and though they’re officially named The Actress and The Professor, we can – with reasonable confidence – infer that they’re Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. And they’re intermittently joined by her husband Joe DiMaggio – The Ball Player – and Joseph McCarthy – The Senator, for a fantasia on the nature of celebrity that is occasionally quite dazzling.
Johnson’s trick is to never veer too far into the realms of the improbably fictitious, locating instead a what-if territory that fleshes out these famous faces far beyond the personae for which they’re known. So Alice Bailey Johnson’s excellent Monroe reveals herself to be far cleverer that she is ever given credit for, and Simon Rouse’s intriguing Einstein has libido to go with his brains as their meeting in his hotel room edges ever closer to the central bed of Max Dorey’s design.
David Mercatali’s production controls the flow of confrontations and conversations between the four characters with measured skill, introducing a subtle dynamism to the wordiness, and encouraging intelligent lighting work from Richard Williamson, who plays marvellously with intensity. The play perhaps emerges more as a curiosity than a classic, though it has plenty to say (with wit) on the transience of fame. Just don’t ask me to explain anything about the physics of it all!