Nearer the Gods (Ensemble Theatre) – theatre review

It’s always a treat to see a David Williamson play. But with Nearer the Gods, set in England in 1684, there is not a vulgar Australian joke to be heard, nor a can of beer to be seen. In fact, the only reference to a “pot” is in Isaac Newton’s chamber. Instead, using the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment, Williamson combines humour and scientific explanation to create an engrossing commentary about vanity, envy and genius.

With a tight script and plot in place, the Ensemble team under the direction of Janine Watson then take the production up a notch. The result is a captivating yarn suitable for all ages and interests. Best described as an historical dramedy, Nearer the Gods tells the story of the battle to get Isaac Newton’s “Principia” published by the Royal Society.

Photos by Prudence Upton

In the late 17th century, the field of natural philosophy was turning the world upside down. The notion that Earth was no longer the centre of the universe was unchallengeable. Technical advances such as the microscope and telescope made the very existence of God, to many learned thinkers, an obvious discussion point. Conventional members at the Royal Society could not explain planetary motion adequately, so Edmund Halley sets out to convince Isaac Newton that he must publish his mathematical theories. Newton is a perfectionist and will not agree until he can solve the riddle of how comets traverse the solar system. Downplaying the importance of this issue, Halley advises that “no one will be remembered for a comet”.

The other sticking point for Newton is his unbreakable pledge not to allow any credit to be given to his adversary Robert Hooke, President of the Royal Society. Hooke claims that he formulated the inverse square law, but Newton denounces this, convinced that Hooke stole it from him. The problem for Newton is that he does not publish his findings, thereby leaving his peers to doubt his ingenuity. However, Newton’s eccentric and reclusive nature gives him the environment in which to think and solve critical mathematics, making him the foremost scientist of his day.

To add further intrigue to the mix, King Charles II has told all the other rulers of Europe that England will soon be the centre of the scientific world. The king wants to show up the French. He has put all his eggs into the Newton basket and urges Halley to get Newton published as a matter of urgency. One thing natural philosophy does not take into account is money and to get published involves serious coin, which the Society, under Hooke’s guidance, is hesitant to provide. In an effort to finance publication, Halley seeks a pay rise from the Society and will even accept the king’s funds from his secret “Royal African Company” slave trade business.

All this is happening while Halley’s wife Mary goes through pregnancy and the birth of a son. When a shocking illness strikes the boy, the atheist Halley must compromise his non-belief and prays earnestly with Mary for the child to recover. While Halley has no faith in a universal creator, Newton declares that his real work is to decipher what God’s plan is for the future of mankind.

Nearer the Gods is a study of the frailties, dilemmas and paradoxes which humanity has somehow grappled with over the centuries to further knowledge and understanding. Although a period play, actors are not in powdered wigs and heavy gowns. Williamson puts the context and language into a contemporary setting, enabling the audience to easily see how bitter rivalries, hatreds and bureaucratic red tape have been the norms for centuries. He also puts the question of belief in God firmly at the centre.

The cast is outstanding. The nuances which demonstrate the emotional tussle between the characters have been mastered exquisitely. All actors deserve praise for their performances: Gareth Davies (Isaac Newton), Rowan Davie (Edmund Halley), Sean O’Shea (King Charles II), Claudia Ware (Robert Hooke), Violet Ayad (Mary Halley), Jemwel Danao (Martin) and Sam O’Sullivan (Simon). A simple set is complemented by subtle lighting and sound effects. I thoroughly enjoyed Nearer the Gods at the Ensemble. But, to borrow the motto of the Royal Society ‘Nullius In Verba’: “take nobody’s word for it”. Go and see it for yourself.

Paul Kiely
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre

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