What happens when David Williamson turns his attention to the men of the Enlightenment to examine their genius, their discoveries, their rivalries, their humanity and their relationship with God?
He finds they are as fallible, envious, spiteful and petty as the next man.
The focus of Nearer The Gods is on the reclusive genius Isaac Newton (played with comedic skill by Gareth Davies), whose theory of gravity shows why and how the universe holds together, from the fall of an apple from the tree, to the planets spinning around the sun.
The trouble is, he’s put aside his theory to work on finding out God’s plan in the Book Of Revelations, and it’s up to the earnest young astronomer Edmund Halley (Rowan Davie), at the behest of the self-important King Charles II (Sean O’Shea), to persuade Newton to publish his Principia Mathematica.
In Williamson’s play, Newton’s rival, the jealous Robert Hook (Shan-Ree Tan), tries to undermine Newton by blocking publication of the manuscript by the Royal Society. As a result, Halley mortgages his house, sacrifices his wife’s and imminent child’s welfare, and risks life in a debtor’s prison to get Newton’s work published.
Williamson writes, “In the end it fell to two of history’s great heroes, Edmund Halley and his wife Mary to sort the mess out.”
The playwright’s inclusion of a heroic female character in Mary Halley offers the much-needed women’s perspective in the play.
Before pregnancy, Mary works tirelessly in the local orphanage where she notices the positive psychological effect of her singing on the babies.
While pregnant, she tolerates her husband being away for long stretches working with Newtown.
And it is she who tells her husband the secret of how to persuade Newton to finish his Principia.
Violette Ayad is a terrific Mary, combining female sensitivitywith a strong brain and a lovely singing voice.
Jemwel Danao plays the accommodating Samuel Pepys, and Sam O’Sullivan inhabits the lofty architect Sir Christopher Wren.
Director Janine Watson doesn’t miss a beat in ensuring that the black humour of Williamson’s lines is delivered forcefully.
Staging is simple, with waist-high piles of paper representing Newton’s years of research or a counter at the local tavern.
Thank god there are no wigs! No need for them as this is a play of ideas exemplified by real individuals and, as usual, the Ensemble made the small space work its magic.
Until Apr 23. Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli. $38-$82+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.ensemble.com.au