Review: 'Atlas'

Review by Violet India Chaudoir, photography by Louis Catliff.

One forgets that behind each figure of history - individuals we study daily and flip past idly in worn textbooks - had lives, existences equal to our own. Each day for them held trials and tribulations, whether they concern contests of pride or friendship. One forgets that with each mind comes a man vulnerable to humanity, but Atlas, directed by Jared Liebmiller, dares to remind us… Remind us of the men whose names we’ve always known, Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, but men we’ve never truly considered as one of us.

Atlas pulls four men: Edmund Halley (Olivier Gilford), Christopher Wren (Jonathan Hewitt), Robert Hooke (Emily Hoyle) and Isaac Newton (Miles Hurley) tightly together. Within the space of one day (July 5th 1687) Halley and Hooke strike a bet, binding the men together. The dare each other to be the first to discover why gravity causes the planets to move about the sun in an ovular rather than circular orbit. It is this bet, weighted at 40 shillings and formulated in an unassuming coffee house, which stands at the heart of the play and propels it forward. Little do these men of natural philosophy know that on this wager are balanced reputations and friendships. Into this this historic race of intellectual endeavour is roped Isaac Newton, and ironically it is his name we most remember today. In the backdrop of Newton’s achievements, these other men circumnavigate, attracting and repelling each other as they verbally spur and ally in dangerous partnerships, capable of defying the Royal Society itself.

Part of the play’s brilliance lies in its exploration of the men whose names students hadn’t highlighted in their textbooks. Olivier Gilford who plays Edmund Halley both acts as the plot’s narrator whilst facilitating much of the plays action. Between explosive clashes of intellect, Gilford delivers monologues at regular intervals throughout the performance. His delivery was measured and perfect. His interludes didn’t interrupt the action, rather they elevated Atlas, reminding of the macroscopic scale of these events, their historical and scientific significance. He reminds of how grateful the audience must be, for they witness seemingly fleeting moments which are really junctures upon which history is angled by slight degrees. Oliver’s words are projected with a delightful sensitivity and humanity which grasps the audience’s attention from the play’s opening to its close.

 Jonathan Hewitt as Christopher Wren

Jonathan Hewitt as Christopher Wren

Jonathan Hewitt, who plays Christopher Wren, had a stage presence which was both powerful and subtle. Never faltering and always present, Hewitt is clearly a generous actor, who consistently read the room; reacting to his fellow actors with a sensitivity and attention that thoroughly grounded his scenes and the play as a whole.  He was the voice of reason and friendship in a room full of men searching for equations and evidence. He stood dead centre between these quarrels providing an axis for the audience by which they could measure the other character’s arrogance and pride.

Attention must be drawn to the performance of Emily Hoyle who played the egotistical and haughty Robert Hooke. Hoyle’s casting as a male role went almost un-noticed, as she mastered not only the masculine physicality but the upturned-nose-demeanour of the character with a confident ease. Whilst her reactions to the other figures could’ve have been more diverse, undeniably the piercing stare she struck at her adversaries never faltered in its ferocity. Hoyle was a man to behold, one the audience and Newton himself found themselves cowering from.

Miles Hurley held the daunting task of playing Newton, History’s protagonist. Whilst it was difficult to decipher Hurley’s speech as he hurriedly muttered on unintelligible mathematics or the laws of physics, perhaps this was a conscious choice to intimate the character’s erraticism. Newton was known to be a man so lost within the complexities of his intelligent mind that his personality was riddled with eccentricities which made his company unfavourable. Hurley works hard however to develop his character into an emblazoned and conceited man, leaving the audience with a sour impression of the man History has recognized so well.

The play, written by the skilled hands of Jared and Noah Liebmiller, was prolific in its coverage of such a long and tumultuous time period. Remarkably, they managed to steer those seated through equations and hypotheses, managing to express their importance even if the scientific exactitudes weren’t fully comprehended. They even resorted to simple demonstrations which allowed the audience to catch up to the sophisticated lingo, and fully engage with the dialogue: at one point a table was propped up to act out gravitational forces – ultimately a clever use of props that gave their equations a necessary physicality. Whilst at moments the language would became enwrapped in poeticism, flipping perhaps too quickly between various metaphors, there is no denying the play didn’t succeed, especially considering what Atlas was tackling.  A 17th century setting, the staging of complex scientific ideas, and the characterisation of men whose names reverberate with a reputation and a history. All these monumental tasks occurred between the walls of the Barron theatre, which was almost too small for such large feats. It is an experience I can’t recommend highly enough.

Tonight the play will be performed once more at 7.30. To reserve tickets email barronboxoffice@st-andrews.ac.uk. I turned up to a full house. Make sure you fill a seat to experience rivalries, ambition and science getting its hands dirty.


Cast: Oliver Gilford, Jonathan Hewitt, Emily Hoyle, Erin Bushe, Miles Hurley.

Directed by: Jared Liebmiller, (AD) Jack Briggs

Writer: Jared & Noah Liebmiller

 

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