By Jen McGregor
What a confused, confusing piece this is. It gets off to a good start, introducing a selection of disparate characters who each have some connection to or interest in Sir Isaac Newton, before bringing forth the man himself. It has potential as a biographical piece, as an exploration of the ways in which an important historical figure still affects people’s lives today, or even as a device to provide a link between a number of otherwise unconnected characters. Sadly, it never gets to the point or makes a clear decision to eschew point-making. The script rambles, in need of structure and clarification.
These flaws could have been rendered less obvious by using lighting, sound or physicality to highlight changes of character or time period. Instead, all that really changes is actor Jack Klaff’s accent. His body language remains the same for nearly every character. There’s no use of sound after the strange easy listening pan flutes used as pre-show music has faded. Lights remain at the same level almost all the time, only undergoing minor changes towards the end of the show. It feels as if this was intended as a radio play but was shunted onto the stage at the last moment, leaving no time to work on physical differentiation of characters or effective use of scenographic elements.
There are hints of all sorts of interesting things – scientific titbits such as the speed we move at while standing still, criticisms of Newton by literary figures such as Keats and Blake, gossip about the man’s sexuality or lack thereof, tensions between Newton and Robert Hook who introduced him to the concept of centripetal force. There is plenty of mileage in any one of those aspects of Newton’s life, which might have provided material for a more substantial play, yet they are glossed over in a frustrating manner. There is too much assumption of prior knowledge and too little depth to the characters. Newton’s brief moments of emotion fail to hit home because they have not been earned.
Klaff is at his most engaging when he is playing characters who idolise Newton. It is clear that he shares their enthusiasm. Perhaps this piece would have been better as a straightforward lecture on the life of a great scientist – as a play it still needs a lot of work.
Newton runs at Summerhall until 25 August (not Tuesdays) at 17.00. Running time one hour and fifteen minutes.