Review: Nearer the Gods – Ensemble Theatre (NSW)

Written by David Williamson, Directed by Janine Watson

Review by Justin Clarke

Fierce rivalries, petty politics and inflated egos threaten to derail one of the greatest contributions to scientific history; Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.

From the opening scene of Nearer the Gods, Williamson is acutely aware of the oddity that is the plot of his new work. Gareth Davies as Sir Isaac Newtown struts onto the stage in traditional English attire – an extravagant gown, flowing wig and cane to match. Then, the dress up is thrown away by directly telling us that, no, we won’t have to endure an outdated and historically accurate night of theatre. Instead, we are told to “get one last look” at the British attire before it is replaced with a contemporary lens.

The show is driven by the young astronomer (and future comet namesake) Edmund Halley (Rowan Davie) who, under the orders of the decadently pompous King Charles II (Sean O’Shea), attempts to answer the secrets of the “unknown force” that keeps the planet in motion. Is it the sun? The earth? God? Only Sir Isaac Newton can answer, if his pugnacious rivalry with Robert Hooke (Shan-Ree Tan on 9 March played by Claudia Ware)can be overcome.

Janine Watson chooses to focus on delving into Williamson’s extremely well written characters with some hilarious interpretations and thoughtful nuances. Newtown and Halley are familiar to us, men driven by ambition and obsession, ego, arrogance, and self-doubt. In addition to Hugh O’Connor’s simply dressed set (mountains of papers organised across the stage), Watson wants us to move with Halley as we see him give everything to publishing Newton’s laws. At times it feels as if there are too many transitions crossing over one another hindering the flow of the dialogue or tension following a scene.

Rowan Davie brings a quality to Halley that is admirable and relatable. With athletic feats like a yogic headstand, and two-stair jump turn Davie generously feeds the audience with energy. Without this energy and addictive obsession, the pace would have dragged in parts.

As the historic genius Sir Isaac Newton, Gareth Davies is subdued in the shadow of Davie’s Halley. His brain is not what it once was, seemingly stuck in a drain of uninspired isolation. But whenever an idea or moment passes through his brain and sets him alight, Davies makes Newton so realistically human that even a Year 8 Science class would find him fascinating.

Season O’Shea’s King Charles II feels like something out of Blackadder. O’Shea brings bouts of laughter with his snooty drawl, childlike humour and prized “king-sized” telescope. He is hilarious and genuine, bringing the comedic relief character a human aspect.

Replacing Shan-Ree Tan in the 9th March performance, Claudia Ware’s ego-driven Robert Hooke boasts a demanding voice and fuels the rivalry at the heart of the play. Ware is a formidable force against the rest of the men in the political circles of the science community that Williamson has constructed.

Nearer the Gods‘ is a piece of theatre that will raise some thought-provoking discussions underpinned with Williamson’s trademark black humour.

Williamson has found connections between Newton’s time and the world we live in. Halley’s line delivered punch after punch of reality when discussing significant events in the character’s life – plague, floods, fires, unwarranted wars. It’s as if Williamson is suggesting that we too may, hopefully, find ourselves in another age of enlightenment. Then, there’s the age-old debate that underpins Halley’s relationship with his wife, Mary (Violette Ayad). Which is more conclusive, God or Science? In his writing, Williamson draws out this question but never fully answers it, instead giving the debate over to the audience.

There seemed at times to not be enough in the plot to justify the two hour and twenty run time. The show sometimes dragged, with a lot of back of forth of short scenes that could have been visually shown or even disregarded.

Williamson and Watson have boldly brought back long forgotten figures whose scientific impact we now take for granted and placed them in the contemporary spotlight. Nearer the Gods is a piece of theatre that will raise some thought-provoking discussions underpinned with Williamson’s trademark black humour. A science lesson in a bottle, you may just leave knowing more than when you entered.

Reviewer Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Images by Prudence Upton.

CREATIVES
DIRECTOR JANINE WATSON
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR RACHEL CHANT
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER HUGH O’CONNOR
ASSOCIATE SET & COSTUME DESIGNER VERONIQUE BENETT
LIGHTING DESIGNER MATT COX
COMPOSER & SOUND DESIGNER CLARE HENNESSY
STAGE MANAGER MEG STEPHENS
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER ALEXI WORONOWICZ
COSTUME SUPERVISOR RENATA BESLIK
COSTUME SUPERVISOR SECONDMENT SAMANTHA MANNING

CAST
MARY HALLEY VIOLETTE AYAD
SAMUEL PEPYS/ISAAC BARROW/ MARTIN/QUERRY JEMWEL DANAO
EDMUND HALLEY ROWAN DAVIE
ISAAC NEWTON GARETH DAVIES
KING CHARLES II SEAN O’SHEA
SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN/JOHN WICKINS/ SIMON/BAILIFF SAM O’SULLIVAN
ROBERT HOOKE SHAN-REE TAN

UNDERSTUDIES
LLOYD ALLISON-YOUNG
CLAUDIA WARE

To keep up with the latest news, reviews and our own Theatre Thoughts, follow us on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

Leave a Reply