BWW Review: MOSQUITOES, National Theatre
In the immediate, heartbroken aftermath of the EU Referendum, I had some very uncharitable thoughts about the right to vote. Perhaps it should involve some kind of IQ test, or at least a demonstrable ability to tell the difference between fact and Daily Mail-induced fantasy.
Who is qualified to make decisions that affect others, and the power inherent in that, forms the spine of Lucy Kirkwood's mighty new play, which - sharing the jumbo scale of Chimerica - sweepingly references everything from degrees of belief to the internet age and of course Trump, that proud emblem of wilful ignorance, in its ambitious tackling of faith, science and everything in between.
Two warring sisters occupy polar opposite positions. Olivia Williams's Alice is a rational physicist searching for answers via CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, while Olivia Colman's Jenny, the parochial low-achiever in a clan of super-scientists, believes message boards and scaremongering articles over experts.
Though siblings, there's a definite culture clash, if not class barrier, offering an effective microcosm of the current "metropolitan elites" versus "real people" debate. Bilingual Alice operates in an international team and has a handsome black, Swiss boyfriend; Luton resident Jenny is suspicious of foreigners and trusts her gut in reporting on Asian passengers - "I would rather be a racist than die in a plane crash".
Kirkwood astutely captures the frustrating chasm between these entrenched positions. Alice recounts only being able to touch her baby son through the glass of an incubator, and it often feels like there's a pane of glass between people - either physically separated, communicating via phones or computers, or emotionally, unable to empathise with someone whose convictions seem alien.
Nick Payne gave vast ideas a human face in theoretical physics romcom Constellations, and Kirkwood's play, if formally more straightforward, does something similar here with the family drama. Theories of how a universe is created or destroyed, how one discovery, decision or event could trigger another, are reflected domestically via the sisters, their ornery mother, Alice's absent ex, and her angst-ridden son Luke.
Jenny might worry that Alice's work is apocalyptic, because she read it online, but to the teenager, everything already feels like the end of the world. Though Kirkwood generally handles the unwieldy theories well, some of the most engaging moments are these small-scale, relatable ones: Luke awestruck by proximity to his crush, curled into a ball of embarrassment, or glimpsing hope thanks to fiercely kind intervention from his aunt.
Parenting is a key strand in the play. One of Jenny's ill-informed decisions has major consequences for her child, while Alice is too inclined to dismiss Luke's feelings as irrational. Meanwhile, physically ailing matriarch Karen - whose Nobel-winning husband got credit for her pioneering work - is fearsomely ruthless, labelling Alice dedicated but less than brilliant, and Jenny, who she resents as a caretaker, unfathomably stupid.
Amanda Boxer is superb as Karen, her forthrightness both amusing and horrifyingly wounding, and there are great turns from Joseph Quinn and Sofia Barclay as the awkwardly developing teens, Yoli Fuller's increasingly infuriated Henri, and Paul Hilton lucidly conveying both science and the way a study of chaos theory might warp into mental illness.
But the play's success depends on the bond between the sisters, and the two Olivias are utterly convincing in their fraught intimacy. The force of particles colliding is described as equivalent to two mosquitoes flying into each other, and the siblings' collisions, if relatively small, are shattering and primal - one weakening the other to draw strength.
Williams creates a fascinating portrait of someone who urgently needs structure, whether personal, scientific or religious (Alice has become a Quaker, a faith suiting her preference for seeking answers herself), and who's unable to deal with those threatening it. Colman's Jenny is a darkly funny, maddening mixture: small-minded and big-hearted, candid and dishonest, a destructive mess of a person who nonetheless wins your sympathy.
At near-three hours, there's the odd overwritten scene or dip in engagement, but Rufus Norris's animated production has some effectively theatrical tricks. The science lectures are made palatable via immersive cosmic light shows (key contributions from Paule Constable, Paul Arditti, Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway), and Katrina Lindsay's set is ever-evolving - from living room to cyberspace, park to otherworldly portal.
It's an expressive corrective to the layperson's disconnect from science, and our increasing disconnect from one another in this world we ostensibly share. Hugely ambitious, intelligent and affecting, and a refreshing epic powered by two women who contain multitudes.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg