BWW Review: INSIGNIFICANCE, Arcola Theatre
Albert Einstein (called "The Professor" here, but we all know who he is and who the others are too, so...) is alone in a New York hotel room when Senator Joe McCarthy barges in and bullies him to attend and speak to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee about his "subversive" past. Einstein resists the thug in a sharp suit by simply being Einstein.
With the shape of space-time on his mind, he is interrupted again by the more familiar shape of Marilyn Monroe, escaping the leers and the sneers of those only able to see the sex symbol and not the woman - to be fair, she has some complicity in that, as she has just shot the famous air vent photograph, skirt a-billowing. They talk and Marilyn explains relativity with breathy, bosomy enthusiasm and (somewhat awkwardly) seduces Einstein and they are just about to create human (if not nuclear) fusion when Marilyn's husband raps at the door. Joe DiMaggio is yobbishly stupid, but grows into an unlikely eloquent and sensitive man as the parties talk and talk and talk.
In a set that invites us into the hotel room itself, we're almost manhandled into buying the conceit and it's only when my mind wandered to comparing Joe DiMaggio to Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta that David Mercatali's tight direction slipped. There's strong lighting work from Richard Williamson throughout the play to underpin time and place, critical to the credibility of the mise en scene.
Alice Bailey Johnson is super as Marilyn, intellectually hungry, frustrated as an artist and a woman, the carapace of confidence cracking to show the fragile self-esteem as her voice goes from the sexualised Little Bo-Peep tones to that of a woman trying to make her way in a man's world under the most male of male gazes. That element of the play shouldn't be relevant 60 years on from the time in which it is set and 35 years on from its writing - alas, of course, it very much is.
Simon Rouse has the unenviable task of playing Einstein - with the hair, the voice, the name's shorthand for genius all iconic. It is to his credit that he makes a man of the myth with little references to his ill-health and fishing trips and then his buying into Marilyn's credo of "What The Hell?" Both Tom Mannion as McCarthy and Oliver Hembrough as DiMaggio deal well with a script that gives them caricatures rather than characters to play, and it's a shame that Hembrough has so little time to explore the anxieties of DiMaggio in his conversations with Marilyn, choked off almost as soon as they start.
Terry Johnson's play is a comedy without many laughs and a science-based play without much science. Perhaps we're just too familiar with Schrödinger's cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle these days, so the metaphor for the impact of observation under the laser light of celebrity culture feels a little hackneyed in 2017 as it may not have done in 1982. And, and you might have to whisper this, despite the subject matter and the fine acting and well controlled theatricality, it's all just a bit boring - nothing much actually happens!
You can, natch, pick your own themes out as you go along, with politics and celebrity, paranoia and nuclear posturing, bullying and female objectification all explored in the text and that lot is more than enough to warrant this well-timed revival. But the actual stuff of drama feels a little tepid and, in my case and I suspect others' too, some like it hotter.
Photo - Alex Brenner