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Genius of petty minds in Nearer the Gods

Full disclosure. 

I don’t have a mathematical bone in my body, nor a scientific one. Which is why we should be grateful to all those we knew in class who thought figures were fun and test tubes terrific, because if it was up to me, we’d still be living in caves and convinced the earth was flat. 

I prefer studying people, their idiosyncrasies, flaws and strengths, which is why Nearer the Gods, a tale ostensibly about an historic, (some say the most important) scientific discovery ever made, is so fascinating. Behind the scenes, more than 300 years ago, there was a far more relatable real-life drama going on, triggered by the complex equation of personalities.

This is the latest offering from David Williamson, inspired to write the play after exploring the story behind Sir Isaac Newton’s (Gareth Davies) theory that gravity wasn’t just some quirky force pulling apples to the ground, but a more powerful invisible phenomenon holding our universe together. 

His brilliance was nearly snuffed out however by the manipulative and brilliant scientist and architect Robert Hooke (performed admirably on opening night by understudy Shan Ree Tan). Renowned for many of his own discoveries, Hooke was the Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, an elite association formed in 1660 and charged among other things with promoting science and its benefits. The Society was granted a royal charter by King Charles 11 played hilariously by Sean O’Shea. His flamboyant portrayal of a pampered King in fierce competition with France to lead the world in scientific breakthroughs is belly-laugh stuff.

Gareth Davies and Violette Ayad reach common ground in Nearer the Gods. Image: Prudence Upton

Stuck in the middle of the scheming Hooke and the prickly Newton, is astronomer Edmund Halley (Rowan Davie) who is ordered to get Newton back to working on his theory and Hooke to lay off with his sabotage.  After all, he cheerfully lamented “no one is going to be remembered for a comet”. Meanwhile, Halley’s wife Mary, (Violette Ayad) is the real force among these ridiculous men, bringing everyone down to earth with her astute and sound observations. 

Yes, you have to concentrate, particularly with the multiple roles played by other cast members. But the superb and tight direction by Janine Watson seamlessly pulls you in, just like gravity itself, despite the scientific gobbledygook which made my head hurt. And it is funny. For me, the egos and kindergarten-like shenanigans, fabulously delivered by all, were more fascinating than the discovery itself. What would have happened had Hooke succeeded in quashing Newton’s theories and Newton continued sulking? Who would have eventually enlightened us with the ‘greatest leap in knowledge in the natural world we have ever been gifted’?

I still don’t understand what any of these boffins were really talking about and I still don’t think too much about why an apple falls to the ground. I probably never will. But it’s enthralling watching a room full of petty, paranoid, jealous and conniving men bumbling around and discovering that’s something science seemingly can’t improve. 

 

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