Reginald Theatre, October 13
“If you stir a cup of tea,” explains Martina, a PhD candidate in astrophysics, “it all goes round. If you stir a superfluid [like the interior of a neutron star], what happens is you start a lot of vortices going through the liquid, so instead of a whole lot swirling around you get lots of little whirlpools.” Alana Valentine’s play is like that. Rather than containing a narrative swirling in one direction, it contains whirlpools about astrophysics, gender equality in the scientific community, poetry, ethics, the thrill of discovery and the role of the individual verses the role of a team.
These whirlpools fill a heady play that won the 2012 International Stage Award, a competition for plays about science or technology. Valentine has not set out to make simple points, but, just like astrophysics, to show complex relationships between, for instance, the ideal of gender equality and the reality of teamwork in pointing a radio telescope at the extremities of the universe, in order to learn more about space, time, matter, gravity and more.
Professor Kell-Cantrel (Belinda Giblin) has commissioned several poets to write a book of verse with science as the common theme. So the intense Daniel (Tim Walter) heads for Parkes to meet Martina (Gabrielle Scawthorn), in the hope their interaction might spawn inspiration for his contribution.
Initially dismissive, Martina then makes a discovery so wondrous that she has to share her excitement with someone even before she has confirmed her data, and Daniel happens to be handy. The story spins into the gender/ethics/teamwork maelstrom when Martina’s boss, Steven (Christopher Stollery) pokes his nose into her research, uninvited.
While the characters play out the hostility, sadness and pettiness of personal and professional conflict, Valentine is also deeply concerned with the nature of truth and beauty. Arguments between scientists, her drama explains, are part of a dialectic of constant conflict necessary to zero in on truth, and the proof of that truth comes via perfection and beauty of mathematics. Martina, in fact, is less beguiled by the night sky than by the numbers on her screen.
Daniel is also a slave to beauty, but his is the beauty of words, aesthetics, metaphor and meaning, allied to the rampant curiosity (and keen intelligence) of the amateur scientist. Several times he delivers his work directly to us, and proves that he (via Valentine) has a firm grasp of his art. The play’s title comes from the opening poem, in which he wants “to put my ear/to the edge of time”.
Walter is exceptional at delivering the verse, and convincing as an intense young man with a flair for rubbing people the wrong way. Nor is Martina an especially sympathetic character to start. Scawthorn must juggle investing her with credibility as an astrophysicist while fighting stereotyping, and her performance becomes more compelling as the play progresses. Giblin has fun swapping between blowsy Rhonda, a motelier, and the crisp intellect of Kell-Cantrell. But the outstanding performance is Stollery’s, whose urbanity, dryness, understatement and timing light up not only Steven, but two minor roles, including a sardonic bookseller.
Nadia Tass’s Sport For Jove production uses a bare stage, Shaun Gurton’s design just consisting of a half-moon screen with night-sky and physics projections.
It is a fascinating work, and in an age when playwrights love to hector, Valentine must be commended for eschewing specific stands on the issues she raises. Yet the play can also feel slightly muddled, as if her whirlpools could have intersected more thoroughly and elegantly, like numbers in an equation.