The theatre is a place for ideas – where we exchange new ideas, interrogate old ones and ponder the fascinating way humans relate to each other and the world around us. Though they may seem unlikely bedfellows, science and theatre meet in their long history of shared storytelling. Both attract brilliant thinkers, using creativity in vastly different ways.
Over the years STC has brought science and theatre together on stage, presenting a variety of plays from innovative writers that illuminate, challenge or completely defy scientific possibility.
Now, as we move towards the premiere of Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood, we look back at all the times STC has combined the unlimited possibilities inherent in drama and science to make explosive, magical chemistry.
In 1996, STC staged the controversial David Williamson work Heretic, which centres on cultural anthropologist Derek Freeman, and his attempts to prove Margaret Mead's seminal book Coming of Age in Samoa was unscientific and fabricated. The study noted that young Samoan women frequently married later so they could experience more sexual freedom in their youth, in stark contrast to the chastity expected of young women in Western cultures. Mead's conclusion that psychosexual development is cultural, not innate, was the subject of extreme backlash from conservatives, including Freeman.
THE LIFE OF GALILEO (1996)
1996 was a stellar year for science in theatre, with Heretic and also The Life of Galileo bringing science alive on stage. John Howard starred in the titular role of Bertolt Brecht's iconic play, adapted by David Hare. The play follows the father of observational astronomy in his lifelong quest to prove that the sun is the centre of our universe. Galileo's theory flew in the face of all accepted science in seventeenth century Rome, and he was forced to defend his work before a Vatican inquisition.
LA DISPUTE (2000)
STC entered the 21st century with a provocative work that was booed off stage when it first opened in 1744: Pierre Marivaux's La Dispute. The STC debut for director Benedict Andrews (who would go on to become a favourite of STC audiences), the production also featured Rose Byrne, David Field and Leeanna Walsman. The play examines which of the sexes was originally unfaithful, by devising a scientific experiment. Marivaux's audience surrogate, The Prince, has taken four children — two boys and two girls — and had them raised in an enclosure. They're completely devoid of experience and social interaction. As adolescents, they're released to meet each other for the first time, fall in love, and inevitably betray each other. The result is a bleak comedy about our innate humanity.
STC moved from dangerous experiments to dangerous liaisons with our 2002 production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. In 1941, at the height of WWII, a meeting occurred that would be the subject of endless debate and uncertainty. German physicist Werner Heisenberg (played by Colin Friels) travelled to Copenhagen, the home of his mentor and fellow physicist, Niels Bohr (John Gaden). Was he coming to warn Bohr of the atomic bomb? To convince him to refuse research on the bomb? To interrogate him about Allied spies? Deceit abounds as the spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe discuss one of history's most mysterious meetings.
Few works have invaded the pop-culture lexicon as heavily as Mary Shelley's gothic horror Frakenstein. When budding chemist Victor Frankenstein — alight with Promethean fervor — creates a humanoid monster, he sets in motion a tragic tale of terror, loneliness and revenge. Our 2008 reimagining of Frankenstein was directed and designed by Ralph Myers, with Yael Stone as Frankenstein's monster, and Benjamin Winspear as Frankenstein himself. The production stripped the story of its letters within letters and countless locations, focusing instead on the very human heart of Shelley's masterful work.
IN THE NEXT ROOM (2011)
A witty, powerful imagining of the events that led up to the invention of the vibrator, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) was the first play by Sarah Ruhl to be staged at STC. Pamela Rabe directed two beloved STC actors, Helen Thomson and Jacqueline McKenzie. It's the 1880s, and the arrival of electricity in American homes inspires Dr. Givings, gynecologist and scientist, to create an electrical device to treat "hysteria". As he treats his patients in his home surgery, his sexually frustrated wife, Catherine, and new patient, Sabrina Daldry, form a whimsical, unlikely friendship in the eponymous next room.
VERE (FAITH) (2013)
Former STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes brought a stunning ensemble cast together for the premiere of John Doyle's Vere (Faith). The masterful Paul Blackwell starred as Vere, a physicist invited to research the Higgs boson particle in Switzerland. Before he leaves, Vere is diagnosed with dementia. The play charts the slow ravaging of his once-brilliant mind, as he grapples with the loss of his intellect and memory, and struggles to continue his life's scientific work.
THE EFFECT (2014)
The following year we saw another magnificent melding of science and stage: the premiere of The Effect by British playwright Lucy Prebble. The ethical boundaries of science and love are tested when Tristan, a charming drifter, and Connie, a psychology student, both sign up for the clinical trial of a new antidepressant. As their doses get stronger, they fall deeply in love. Their relationship throws the overseeing physicians into an ethical dilemma that spans medicine, brain chemistry and—perhaps even—real love.
No discussion on science in theatre could be complete without Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's century-hopping, chaotic tale of scientific discovery, unlikely love and indiscrete affairs. In 1809 at Sidley Park, a towering English manor, precocious young Thomasina and her tutor Septimus are discovering chaos theory — and their affection for each other. Two hundred years later, Hannah, Chloe and Bernard have arrived at Sidley Park to learn more about the manor's 19th century inhabitants. What unfolds is a timeless, absurdist piece of Stoppard's best theatre.
THE CHILDREN (2018)
Last year, STC welcomed an incredible cast led by director Sarah Goodes for the Australian premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's The Children. The play takes us inside the quaint, coastal cottage of retired nuclear scientists Hazel and Robin (STC greats Pamela Rabe and William Zappa) who live amidst the wreckage caused by a nuclear disaster. Electricity is rationed and the outside world is radioactive. But their quiet life is disrupted by the arrival of an old friend, Rose (the incomparable Sarah Peirse) who brings with her memories of a fateful decision made 40 years ago, and a harrowing question: what is our responsibility to future generations? The Children’s moral dilemma sparked vigorous debate in the foyer.
Mosquitoes, 8 Apr – 18 May 2019, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.
Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Drama Theatre Box Office for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.
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