Thursday, March 17, 2022

Nearer the Gods


Nearer the Gods by David Williamson.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 4 – April 23, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 16

Director – Janine Watson; Assistant Director – Rachel Chant

Violette Ayad
Jemwel Danao
Rowan Davie
Gareth Davies
Sean O'Shea
Sam O'Sullivan
Shan-Ree Tan

Understudies: Lloyd Allison-Young; Claudia Ware

Set & Costume Designer - Hugh O'Connor; Associate Set & Costume Designer - Veronique Benett; Lighting Designer - Matt Cox; Composer & Sound Designer - Clare Hennessy

If William Shakespeare in 1600 could present plays based upon what research he had available about historical figures – Richard III, Henry IV and Henry V – whose influence was still highly significant after a century or two, why should David Williamson not do the same for Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley today?

At least Williamson will not face questions of political bias as we have seen about Shakespeare’s representation of King Richard, say – but maybe some will have concerns about matters of Faith in God denied by those who believe in Universal Force of Gravity.

Nearer the Gods is a different kind of play from Williamson’s more usual comedies of middle-class manners.  It reminds me, though, of his Heretic – in which Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman argue about the truth of their research into South Sea Islands’ culture.

In Nearer the Gods it is womaniser King Charles II who would love to escape his kingly responsibilities and travel to the South Seas with Edmond Halley chasing comets – not for the astronomical observations but for the ‘dusky’ ladies to add to his collection of Nell Gwynns.  Did I say Nearer the Gods is not a comedy?  But there is much arch humour here in the story of The Royal Society  which was founded in 1660 to bring together leading scientific minds of the day, and how “In the end it fell to two of history’s great heroes, Edmond Halley and his wife Mary to sort the mess out” of Isaac Newton’s on-the-spectrum personality and Robert Hooke’s revengeful paranoia.  

However important to Shakespeare were those kings from whom his Queen Elizabeth was descended, nothing matches the importance of the calculus, the inverse square law and the theory of the universal force of gravity to our world today.  But when it came to publishing Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica without what Hooke completely unreasonably demanded as his due recognition as the ‘father’ of Newton’s mathematics, King Charles – in Williamson’s play at least – had to point out that the Royal Society was, after all, ‘My’ Society and he wanted the book without further delay – finally in 1687.

Does this make Williamson a modern Shakespeare?  I think it does.  As we still remember that Mark Antony said “Lend me your ears” we will not forget what Edmond really did say about Isaac: “Nearer the gods no mortal may approach” because, as Williamson puts it in his Writer’s Note, “Isaac Newton gave the world the greatest leap in knowledge we’ve ever been gifted.”

David Williamson’s gift to us is to bring these historical mathematicians, mysterious to most of us, to life by focussing on Mary’s need for faith in her God and Edmond’s coming to understand how we all need our own faith in ourselves and in each other, because we are mortal.  That is the universal gravity that keeps us together.  

This is the level, or perhaps the depth, which takes Nearer the Gods, his fourth-last play, written in 2018 approaching the 80 years he reached as this production was about to open, into a greater realm, where our personal experience of love is equally as important as our intellectual understanding of the forces of the universe.  Science and the Arts come together in an extraordinary way in Nearer The Gods by David Williamson.

The style of the production is new too, for Williamson.  Short snappy scenes make it clear from the beginning that this is a play, a designed piece of theatre.  A fully costumed 17th Century figure tells us in the first minute that the actors will not be dressed in his finery, but in ordinary modern dress.  

After a flash of disappointment, I felt as soon as the very next encounter of characters was underway that I understood the purpose: to take us out of being fascinated by the fakery of extravagant costumery immediately into the presentation of the relationships in our own language.  Oddly enough, Shakespeare had done the same in his day and age.  

One term often used to describe the bard’s performance style is ‘presentational’.  Yet Williamson’s skills did not mean falling into something like Brechtian distancing effect.  We were kept on the outside as observers of the action, yet were quickly engaged in recognising the feelings of each character and why they reacted as they did – and this became the ever-shifting platform on which the story was laid out.  We even applauded when Newton was at last accepted into the Royal Society (1672)

The stylistic approach made great demands on all the actors, where timing and detailed expression in voice and movement had to dovetail perfectly, even as several actors played more than one role.  Just as timing is essential in comedy, Williamson makes the comedic method work here for a serious purpose.

Ending with the announcement of the resolution of Mary and Edmond’s likely marital trials and tribulations as it actually happened in history – in 54 years of marriage, it was a relief to know the fictional was factual.   

In other words, Nearer the Gods is an original work in the proper sense, and no-one but David Williamson can claim to be the father of its combinations and commutations.  Not to be missed.