Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Who do you think you are? Insignificance, Arcola Theatre

“That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing… I just hate being a thing…”   Marilyn Monroe or Norma Jeane Mortenson

People should be queuing around the block to see Marilyn Monroe explaining her take on the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein… it’s to do with a green train, a red train, two flashlights owned by Mickey and by Donald…

It has been over 20 years since Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance was last performed in London and now, when our faith in expertise is being questioned, the possibility of the glamorous even attempting to digest theoretical physics is challenging. We don’t know if Miss Monroe dabbled in physics but we do know that she was a lot more intelligent than her carefully-crafted persona allowed her to let on.

She was not the first to dumb down for her audience but she carried it off in style enjoying Groucho Marx’s description of her persona as a combination of Theda Bara (a knowing soul herself), Mae West and Little Bo-Peep.

It is all relative: Alice Bailey Johnson and Simon Rouse
She was famously married to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, a man who here confesses to enjoying being “stupid” and deliberately choosing not to engage but it’s not clear whether she met Senator Joe McCarthy, here portrayed as a solipsist who believes that he is the only one who exists and that everyone else is a figment of his imagination – that would explain a lot Joe.

The three converge on a mid-town hotel in the play as Marilyn knocks on Albert’s door in the middle of the night, looking for an intelligent conversation and perhaps more… Albert is lost in the music of mathematics as he weighs up whether or not to testify in front of McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. He’s a man of honour as Joe D will later suggest but he too is hiding himself, away from his two broken marriages, his estranged daughter, institutionalised son and the dread of what his theories have unleashed on the World.

He imagines the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whilst the senator wants his voice precisely because he wasn’t directly connected with the bomb unlike those such as Oppenheimer who applied his theories in devastating fashion…

Given all of this it’s not surprising that Albert and Marilyn should hit it off like a house on fire…

Say it ain't so, Joe...
Johnson’s daughter Alice Bailey Johnson makes for a marvellous Monroe from the moment she spills into Albert’s room clutching a brown-paper bag full of items to demonstrate relativity to the professor. She’s got the dress but you have to be brave to exude “Monroe” and Alice delivers in some style!  It’s the night when the skirt-blowing scene for The Seven Year Itch was filmed and following announcements in the newspapers, the late night shoot has been witnessed by thousands each projecting their own desires onto the actress. But Einstein doesn’t know who she is… to her delight: at last, someone she can be herself with!

Simon Rouse takes on another tough task… it’s not easy being Albert either and he carries it with the easy-charm you’d expect of such a cerebral man. Famously the scientist only focused on the thoughts that were useful and tried to forget the “excess” – he’s not absent-minded, just focused and, with Marilyn, he finds someone he can open up to. The more you watch the play, the more these two appear meant for each other… Johnson’s writing is so strong on character and consistency of sentiment.

The senator slimes into the room...
The two Joes are well-played by Oliver Hembrough, whose chewing-gum popping DiMageo barely understands his wife other than as a physical experience, and Tom Mannion playing McCarthy as an ego-maniac for whom cruelty was an extension of his self-definition. They are both distractions who fail to acknowledge what’s actually playing out in front of them.

But it’s those who have the most to hide who express themselves the clearest and we would do well in this era of the fake and the phony to recognise their truth.

Insignificance plays at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday 18th November – tickets and more details are available on their website. It's an excellent venue all round and one of E8's finest gems!

IThankYou Rating: ****

All photographs from Alex Brenner

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