Finborough Theatre, London – until 29 September 2018
Tony Harrison’s predilection for writing in verse has been explored before at the Finborough and it is certainly a style that takes some getting used to. Particularly here, as he explores the development of weapons of mass destruction, often by scientists who had entirely ideas about the application of their innovations or technology.
And as he moves from a chemist inventing poison gas to the inventor of the machine gun, he throws up into stark relief the question about where morality sits within science. Do the potential benefits of a fertiliser outweigh its efficacy in a gas chamber, is there such a thing as finding a ‘better’ way for people to die, is scientific progress really worth it when so many people have died, are dying, will still die.
The play’s structure in a series of more-or-less chronological vignettes means that the drama here is dialled right down in favour of a lecture-ish format. But Jimmy Walters’ direction introduces a sprinkling of magic which is just right for these modern would-be wizards, and supported by an array of expressive performances from the likes of Eva Feiler as Justus von Liebig (founder of organic chemistry) and Philippa Quinn as Fritz Haber (the Nobel Prize-winning German Jewish chemist whose work on poison gases was so terribly abused).
It is powerfully, emotively, thought-provoking stuff, and at its best when it is a chorus of six working in harmony (Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant and Letty Thomas round out the company in fine style). The visual of blind-folded victims, the refrain of a haunting song, the simple humanity of its epilogue. Produced by the ever-excellent Proud Haddock, it’s an adroit choice for the centenary of the last year of the First World War.