Theatre Editor KIERAN CORCORAN carries out a controlled investigation of a play which, despite a standout performance, is ultimately blinded by its own science.
Queens’ Fitzpatrick Hall, 8th-12th March, 7.30pm, £5-6
Directed by Emma Syea
This play starts with a corpse (not unfamiliar in the Fitzpat), then strikes its path through Newton, Einstein and Solomon to end with Nuclear Armageddon. It isn’t an easy play to follow: my walk home was spent earnestly trying to disentangle the falsehoods from the double falsehoods. There may have been a triple somewhere too.
The titular physicists, three of them, are mad, and consequently the play takes place in a madhouse.. They think they are other, famouser physicists, i.e. the above-mentioned Newton and Einstein.
But, it transpires, none of them are true loons: one proper genius is pretending to be mad so that nobody uses his discoveries to DESTROY THE WORLD and the other two are rival undercover agents trying to extort his secrets in order to do just that – or at least something else magnitudinous enough to warrant an outing of the caps-lock key.
The madnesses fell into three predictable but well-performed archetypes. Stephen Bermingham gave pseudo-Newton enough flounce and flamboyance to live up to his rampant red regalia and almighty wig; pyjama-clad Simon Norman put forth a creepily understated and regressive fake-Einstein.
The evening’s award for top crazy, however, goes unquestionably to Paul Adeyefa. As ‘deranged’ genius Johann Möbius, Adeyefa twitched between composure and hollerin’ lunacy; a particular highlight was a space-age psalm delivered extempore from an upturned table. It says a lot that, despite the unsubtle extremes his character demanded, Adeyafa still managed to pull off the show’s most nuanced and believable performance.
But this play can’t be carried on the shoulders of one man, even one with the might of madness. Nurse Monika, who inconveniently pledges her undying love to Möbius only to get strangled for her troubles, was woefully flat in comparison with the peaks and troughs of her crazy crush. Never before has “I love you” rang so hollow.
This was a particularly poor moment, but symptomatic of a generally unengaging array of supporting characters – periods of exposition and dialogue not involving the principals had me nodding off.
A couple of technical oddities also marred proceedings. All through the exchange preceding Möbius strangling his lover-nurse the lights dimmed to a vicious red, as if to yell “you guys! something murdery’s about to happen!” There was probably some good acting going on, but the redness and shadow obscured faces completely, steamrollering any subtleties under heavy-handed monochrome.
Aside from some shaky spot-light work at the end, this was really the only use of lighting for anything other than pragmatic reasons, and was jarring as a result. Also, pretend on-stage ‘smoking’ where all cigars and cigarettes stay unlit is unconvincing to the point of being a distraction – better to cut it completely than go halfway.
Given the immensity of what’s at stake (viz. the future of all humanity), I’d expect a play which makes itself a bit easier to care about. Perhaps I’m inhibited by only having physics to GCSE, but lengthy digressions on atomic bombs and the philosophy of science do not good theatre make.
The grandeur of the delivery of such lines as “we must think about this scientifically” or “you are a scientist!” felt unearned and unjustified. Also, Möbius’ big breakthrough is something called “the universal principle of discovery”, which sounds more like a pastiche than an actual thing – at points like this the pseudo-scientific register lets the script down in a big way.
The Physicists is sound in theory – at least for the most part – and has some keen minds behind it. However, human error combined with inaccurate or misused apparatus prevent the performance from achieving credible results. This, unfortunately, is a deep-set methodological problem unlikely to be alleviated by further repeats.