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Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking

John Hinton
Tangram Theatre Company
Southwark Playhouse (The Little)

John Hinton as Albert Einstein and Jo Eagle as his first wife Mileva Maric Credit: Hannah Houston

Albert Einstein (with that shock of hair and moustache he’s immediately recognisable) greets his audience in the bar as they make their way into the (lecture) theatre and thanks them for coming to this inaugural lecture when he took up a post at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.

By this time, as he will tell his hearer’s later, he had severed all his ties with Germany for Adolf Hitler was in power and he had made things there very bad in Germany for Jews, scientists and human beings—and he happened to be all three.

Einstein chats with individual members of the audience as they get settled. He has already taken up position at the lectern and begun to address them when he is interrupted by a voice making a belated introduction—except it isn’t it is a request that any futuristic telephonic devices should be disabled. He starts again, and again, and again each time being interrupted by another stage of an incomplete introduction. This clearly is not going to be an ordinary academic lecture.

It certainly isn’t! Yet, at the same time it is a carefully constructed introduction to and explanation of the Special and General Theories of Relativity. With assistance from volunteers from the audience (especially romantic couples) there are demonstrations of inertia, gravity, black holes and other phenomenon and everyone gets to participates in creating that algebraic equation in which energy is given as equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. People become light, vacuum is a pink one called Hetty and Einstein’s calculations lead to an orgasmic exposition.

This isn’t all about science however. There is also a potted autobiography. It looks back to his break through theories of 1905, his little-known development of the refrigerator. It reviews his current situation unable to return to Germany where they have burned is books and his life would be in danger with a $50.000 bounty on his head. Going beyond the format of his inaugural lecture it also goes forward into what then was still to happen.

This life-long pacifist tells how, secretly warned that scientists in the Third Reich are working on creation of a weapon developed in response to his theories, he writes to Roosevelt in the hope that if the US gets an atom bomb first it will prevent one ever being detonated, then those hopes defeated, mourns the dead and suffering of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These are all very serious matters and it doesn’t take away from any of the gravity (no pun intended), if anything it makes it greater, that John Hinton’s Einstein is like a zany fourth Marx brother and delivers much of his material in song, accompanied by his second wife Elsa on keyboard. Jo Eagle is Elsa—and also first wife Mileva Marić, whom he tends to forget helped him develop his theories, and even his mother Pauline who encouraged his juvenile genius.

This is a comedic tour-de-force by writer and performer Hinton that goes at a madcap pace to pack so much in, kept just in check by Daniel Goodman’s direction. Speed and a very heavy accent make for some momentary intelligibility but they don’t affect overall comprehension and though his rap would not win a Nobel it is hilarious.

Albert Einstein is 80 minutes of enormous fun and an undercurrent of scientific instruction that may leave more in the memory than anything you learned in the schoolroom.

There is also a junior version, aimed at 6-11 year-olds, that is playing some performances (it won the Best Children’s Event Award at Brighton Fringe 2014).

Reviewer: Howard Loxton