Insignificance

Terry Johnson

Arcola Theatre (Studio 1)

From 18 October 2017 to 18 November 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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A senator comes to visit a professor in his New York hotel room, then an actress appears seeking refuge and she is followed by a baseball player. Terry Johnson doesn’t give them names, just that generic identification, but there is doubt at all who they are. It is an invented meeting but with a little stretch of the imagination it could have been possible.

It premièred at the Royal Court in 1982 and is set back in 1954 but it couldn’t be more relevant in today’s world of renewed nuclear threat, fake news, the rise of the right and the cult of celebrity.

The professor is Albert Einstein, in town for a Peace Conference and quietly working on calculations when the senator turns up. It is Joseph McCarthy with a subpoena for Einstein to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he goes away with a promise to return in the morning, the actress who knocks at the door is Marilyn Monroe, fleeing the crew and the crowds who have been ogling the multiple takes of the wind up her skirt shot for The Seven Year Itch; the ball player is her husband, Joe DiMaggio.

McCarthy hopes to bully the scientist into support but Einstein remains calm, refusing. It's a gentle performance from tousle-haired Simon Rouse in his braces and shirtsleeves with Tom Mannion’s senator towering over him. He is no more perturbed by Monroe’s arrival: he doesn’t know who she is until she points out a poster from the hotel balcony. This McCarthy, a man who claims the Second World War was a Soviet plot, seems to have swallowed a dictionary (though only to S), trying out rare words to give him an appearance of intellect.

Her arrival isn’t accidental. She has come equipped with props to support her own explanation of the Theory of Relativity; she wants him to confirm that she has got it right. In a delightful performance, Alice Bailey Johnson gives us both the public Marilyn persona and the vulnerable private person and this particular sequence is hilarious with Einstein in Mickey Mouse ears, her in a Donald Duck hat and both flashing torches and rushing round with toy trains.

Oliver Hembrough’s bubble-gum chewing Joe, counting the number of cards in the packets that feature him as proof of his importance, is belligerent and seemingly stupid but claims it's an act; he’s going to change. You can’t help feeling sympathy for him as it's clear that their marriage is over, but it is Monroe’s position that becomes increasingly poignant as the play progresses.

When McCarthy comes back bringing breakfast next morning, he takes Monroe for a tart who just looks like her. He fails to get what he wants from Einstein but his actions help to wreck her life and turn this from a kind of comedy into a tragedy.

It is a script that is clever and intelligent, its humour engaging, though more recent exposure to Schrödinger’s cat and the Heisenberg principle mar their original effect.

In different ways, both Monroe and McCarthy both want to know things but, as Einstein explains, it’s not to know everything that matters but to understand everything you know and undermines everything declaring, “knowledge isn’t truth, it is merely agreement.” That is as unnerving as his vision of what his own work might bring about—but this is a play as much about love as about science and politics. “I am trying to tell you how I love,” says Monroe, "not how much or how little, but how.” Out of his depth, DiMaggo cries out, “how can a man make love to a wound.”

David Mercatali’s direction never intrudes but gets fine performances from all the actors and creates a real intimacy with the audience and it looks lovely in Max Dorey’s art deco setting. Insignificance has a very entertaining surface but darker ideas lie below it.