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Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie

Alan Alda
Alces Productions
Tabard Theatre

Clive Moore as Pierre Curie, Cathy Tyson as Marie Curie and Stephen Cavanagh as journalist M Terbougie Credit: Richard Davenport
Cathy Tyson as Marie Curie and Clive Moore as Pierre Curie Credit: Richard Davenport
Zoë Simon as Marguerite Borel, Cathy Tyson as Marie Curie and John Albasiny as Émile Borel Credit: Richard Davenport

Marie Curie, in partnership with her husband Pierre who gave up his own work on crystals to collaborate with her, discovered radium, coined the word radioactivity and observed that when exposed to radium tumour cells were destroyed more rapidly than healthy ones. Later, after Pierre’s death, she at last succeeded in isolating radium.

In 1903, Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel for “their joint researches on the radiation phenomena”. In 1911, she gained a second, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”.

Alan Alda’s play, here receiving its British première, traces her life between those two events beginning when Pierre receives a letter offering him the award with no mention of Marie in it.

Alda is known as a science-buff as well as an actor and writer. He was the host of the television show Scientific American Frontiers for over ten years, but the emphasis here is less on her science than on her personal story. Though Christopher Hone’s set features a compartmented wall chalked up with the chemical symbols for the elements and the show opens with Marie stirring pitchblende in her efforts to isolate radium, this isn’t a lecture. It doesn’t really attempt to explain any of the science.

A series of short scenes concentrate on the opposition that had to be met to her being recognized as a scientist and the reaction of the media to details of her private life.

The Nobel committee were persuaded to include her in the citation, but she is still placed in the front row of the audience not on the platform and she is patronisingly described as her husband’s “helpmate”. He counters that by accepting in her name before his.

We get a picture of a woman obsessed by her research, but also in a devoted personal partnership, which we see, along with the happy marriage of their friends, theoretical mathematician Émile Borel and his novelist wife Marguerite (delightfully played by John Albasiny and Zoë Simon), set against the dysfunctional partnership between Pierre’s former student the physicist Paul Langevin and his wife Jeanne.

Cathy Tyson, an actress we have seen too little of lately, captures Curie’s dour dedication in her grey garb, but only momentarily does she get a chance to suggest the personal attraction that also drew Pierre’s devotion. Clive Moore is allowed to play him as a gentle charmer, especially effective when only a ghostly onlooker, always in Marie’s mind.

When Pierre is killed in a traffic accident, Marie’s distress and her continued thoughts of him (she wrote a letter to her dead husband daily) now allow her to reveal more feeling. In her loneliness, she finds support from unhappily married Paul Langevin that soon turns into a steamy affaire.

James Palmer is a presentable younger lover as Langevan, unfortunately hampered by a moustache that, however historically accurate it may be, makes him look like a seducer straight out of a melodrama. Perhaps that hints at why his wife Jeanne, out of her depth in intellectual company, had expected something quite different from their marriage.

Zoë Teverson has fun playing her hurt pride and pugnacious jealousy which encourages Stephan Cavanagh’s journalist Terbougie to whip up a public scandal that plays on xenophobia and anti-Semitism with crowds gathering outside Curie's house and abusive calls of “Polish whore!”.

Giulia Scrimieri’s costumes evoke the period and there is a strong sense of the affection that Marie Curie’s friends felt for her but, despite the clarity of her performance, Alda’s script doesn’t let Tyson explore the character sufficiently deeply.

It interesting to know more about the problems that Marie Curie (and other women) had to face, increasing respect for her achievement even further, but Mark Geisser’s production can’t hide an episodic structure that doesn’t grow from the life of the characters and leaves it very much to the actors to breathe life into them.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton