When science becomes performance art

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

Science discovered show business long before a 22-year-old Charles Darwin set off on a round-the-world mapping expedition aboard HMS Beagle. The Royal Institution had been staging public lectures for more than a decade before he was born, and was notorious for its hazardous stagecraft. Audiences regularly contended with toxic fumes, safety lamps plunged into explosive gases, powerful electromagnets dangled above their heads, and model volcanoes altogether more pyrotechnic than anything you’ll find at a school science fair.

Audiences for The Wider Earth, David Morton’s puppet-populated play about Darwin’s voyage, are treated more kindly in the brand-new 350[CHK]-seat Jerwood theatre at the Natural History Museum in London. The worst you can say about this show is that it’s a bit loud.

The Wider Earth’s whirling set (ship. mountain, house on a hill, cliff, jungle…) is, like the script, the direction, the puppets and the production, a creation of David Morton and his Dead Puppets Society. A superior animated map-cum-sketchbook, provides backdrops at flicker-book speed for an annoyingly televisual script (Oh, for a decently written monologue!) which is rather more clever than it seems. Once I was done wincing at all its many eillisions and simplifications, the absence of fellow evolutionary pioneer Alfred Russel Wallace and all the rest of it, it dawned on me that this jumped-up family-friendly puppet show (the iguana deserved an ovation) succeeded where many longer and more scholarly treatments fail. It put the then-controversial geology of Charles Lyell [SP?] front and centre of its story, arguing that Darwin’s theorising was not merely inspired by Lyell’s work, but was a conscious and deliberate exploration of its implications. Together, Lyell and Darwin provided the evidential backbone for our materialist view of the universe, and Morton’s thunking, didactic narrative nevertheless turns this talk into the sort of staggeringly radical nonsense it must have seemed in Darwin’s day.

The Wider Earth sold out Sydney Opera House before arriving at London’s Natural History Museum for its European premiere. Considered purely as theatre, it’s surprising it did so well. As a hybrid science entertainment, however, it’s virtually faultless, a welcome innovation from a museum that, lumbered as it is with the task of keeping school-kids occupied during wet half-term holidays, decided (from around the time of 2016’s exhibition Colour and Vision, if memory serves) to communicate unashamedly through spectacle, beauty and wonder.

The workhorse museums of Albertopolis — the V&A, the Science Museum and the rest — have to work harder than most to realise new aesthetic and artistic opportunities. In a city that can sustain shows like the V&A’s recent Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which boasted a working replica of a baroque theatre, it’s easy to forget how hard it is for our most venerable institutions to innovate. Nothing kills the spirit of experiment quicker than high visitor numbers, and the legalities and expenses around venerable bricks and mortar have a deadening effect of their own.

If younger institutions find it easier to combine exhibitions with events of all kinds, including dramatic performance, it’s usually because they inhabit newer buildings. Also, the prevailing culture isn’t expecting them to act as agents in some great global stocktaking exercise. The Science Gallery network, which opened a new gallery in London this September, places more emphasis on audience involvement than on the acquisition and preservation of objects. None of its galleries, existing or under construction, have plans to acquire a permanent collection. Neither has The Shed, a huge multi-arts venue due to open in New York next year.

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and for ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no-one can remember the password.Good: a VR entertainment called Hold the World, in which a more than passable David Attenborough avatar leads you round the laboratories of the Natural History Museum. Bad: you have to be a Sky subscriber to enjoy the trip.

Meanwhile the museum becomes a place of interpretation, more than of preservation, and to do this well, new forms of address are always welcome, particularly among institutions on limited budgets. The Darwin Museum’s lovely but tiny show Darwin: Man of Science is immeasurably expanded by tours-in-character, actorly recitations of famous mysteries, and an authentic magic lantern show. The other day, in the even more crammed environs of University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Tom Bailey’s solo show Zugunruhe made politics of ornithology, combining Eritrean, Egyptian, Iranian and Sudanese songs shared by residents of the Calais “Jungle” with calls from globally migrating birds.

Introducing performance to the museum space goes back at least as far as Kenneth Clark’s stint as director of the National Gallery in the 30s and 40s. But its contemporary currency is something new, and it’s encouraging the development of new kinds of curation. Never mind the museological mischiefs of artists like Mark Dion and Salvatore Arancio (whose show Surreal Science is currently running at London’s Whitechapel Gallery). Young curator-artists are placing performances, debates, workshops and even discos at the heart of the museum and gallery experience. Again, money is part of the story, since this kind of programming is best left to a self-renewing supply of guest curators. In the last couple of years Shrinking Space, a science-event production company consisting of just two people, Andy Franzkowiak and Mary Jane Edwards, has created a son-et-lumiere for Kew Gardens Wakefield, arranged an exhibition about blood for Science Gallery London, strung a sonic solar system across the Royal Albert Hall and staged various world-ending events (or at least, the war-rooms for same) in festivals up and down the country.
Just as we once asked, “Is it art?” we may very well want to ask, is this sort of thing museology? Only posterity can give us an answer. What is apparent is that very many creative people are bringing serious thought to bear on what museums can do for a technological era that has made knowledge simultaneously accessible, and boring.

I know why the caged bird sings, so nuts to you

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.

I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.

Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”

The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.

Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.

By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.

Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.

I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.

My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.

Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I am

Shakespeare and the machines

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Here’s a review of the RSC’s production of The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Through a combination of editorial tightening and big claims (I’m saying Shakespeare’s last play was a masque, not a drama) I make it appear here as though two fully grown polar bears once starred in its production. Please no one correct me: with a following wind this nonsense could become canonical.

for New Scientist, 21 November 2016 

It should come as no surprise that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s projector and motion-capture-enhanced new production of Shakespeare’s last play is a triumph. For one thing, The Tempest is actually not a play: it is a masque, an almost-forgotten dramatic form that was contrived to blow millions (literally, if you convert into today’s currency) on effects-heavy entertainment meant for royalty and a few favoured hangers-on.

James I got his two fully grown pet polar bears involved in one memorable production; modern audiences get actor Mark Quartley as Ariel in a motion-capture extravaganza. The production uses an impressive array of sculpted net curtains as screens on which the serviceable sprite, though a real-enough presence on stage, also flies, dances, finds himself trapped in a tree, transforms into a harpy, and more or less realises every passing fancy about him that Shakespeare ever thought to put to pen.

There is no attempt to hide Quartley, who is also on stage while rigged up in motion-capture kit, rather like those puppeteers who don’t attempt to hide themselves during their performance.

The show is the fruit of a two-year collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), IT company Intel and The Imaginarium Studios – a performance-capture house co-founded by actor Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings film series.

The results are impressive but not seamless. When Quartley dances, Ariel flies. When he speaks or sings, Ariel’s bad lip-synching suggests the buggier corners of YouTube. Never mind: there are 200,000 files running at once to bring this illusion to life, and anyone who knows anything about the technology will be rightly astounded that the sprite responds in real time at all. Much of the two-year collaboration was spent turning a post-production technology into something robust enough for stage use. It is a tremendous, if hidden, achievement.

More seriously – though this is hardly a criticism – The Tempest is the first outing for a form of theatre that is still looking for its grammar. The performance’s game-engine-driven Ariel is shown from a floating, swooping viewpoint, sometimes from above, sometimes from below, sometimes crash-zooming towards us and in the next instant hurtling away – to not much emotional effect, it has to be said.

No one’s doing anything wrong here: we simply don’t know how to read mood into these images, any more than we knew how, at the beginning of cinema, to read the cuts between images. Stephen Brimson Lewis is the RSC’s director of design and his throw-everything-at-it approach here is exactly the right one. If The Tempest is a mess at times, it’s a glorious mess, and one from which future productions can learn.

Simon Russell Beale is Prospero, gamely preparing to be upstaged in journalistic copy, but never, ever on stage. Beale’s is a moving, mesmerising performance, full of rage and danger, though his nice line in bathos keeps him anchored in a show that’s played predominantly for comedy, manufactured stage business and some groan-inducing visual puns.

It’s hard to imagine actual plays benefiting from this up-to-the-minute son et lumière. But The Tempest, and the masque form as a whole, is far closer to opera than to drama, and that, I suspect, is where this technology will find a home.

Meanwhile – and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this – budding playwrights might seriously consider writing masques.

Forced entry

 

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times.

James Graham (@mrJamesGraham) writes plays for fringe venues that quickly transfer to huge auditoriums. This House, which began life in 2012 in the Cottesloe Theatre in London, sold out the flagship Olivier when it moved. Will something similar happen to Privacy, James’s almost-autobiographical journey through the internet? Probably. The version I saw at London’s Donmar Warehouse was witty, very accessible (ideal for school trips and citizenship classes), and turns the internet in general – and social media in particular – into a sort of politically chilling stage magic act. Right now the core of the piece – the disintegration of a personality when it’s continually second-guessed by all-seeing but unthinking machines – lies buried under a lot of stage business. (Much is made of a super-secret dramatic reversal that does not work at all.) But James means to keep the play abreast of current events so there’ll be plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. Here’s the booking page, if you’re tempted: Privacy deserves a public.