By Lucy Kirkwood

Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster and touring. 

Alice is an experimental physicist. Her estranged husband is a theoretical physicist. Alice works at CERN. Her sister Jenny is not a scientist, nor an intellectual. She refuses her IVF daughter the MMR jab. The child dies. Jenny lives in Luton. She is estranged from the child’s father. Alice’s son Luke is a crazy mixed-up kid. His friend Nathalie gets him to text her an image of his genitals which she shows to the world as revenge for him having been in a fight and broken his opponent’s nose. Alice has a new man, Henri (some of the characters seem to think jardin is feminine and thus speak of the “jardin anglaise”). Jenny tries to seduce Henri. She confesses to Alice. Luke goes AWOL, but before the sexting. He’s enough of a nerd to know how to create a virus which will mess up the CERN programme. Jenny and Alice’s mother is also a scientist. Her husband won the Nobel. She has been garlanded with honours. She’s old, incontinent and going gaga.  Then there’s the universe. It’s supposed a big character in this play but as usual it has nothing to say 

Does Kirkwood understand physics? She knows about it, like people who buy A Brief History of Time as a coffee table book. There’s an interesting statistic: books about physics which contain equations sell far less well than those that don’t. There are no equations in this play, except a passing mention of Einstein’s most famous. Nothing here suggests Kirkwood does understand physics, but she recycles the very old joke about Heisenberg and the traffic policeman. She doesn’t bite off more than she can chew, she tries to stuff the whole of the universe in her mouth. Apart from the cod science there is soap-opera. Kirkwood would do well to work at playwriting, unless she wants to work at CERN, in which case she needs to get herself a Phd pretty quickly.  

Kirkwood hasn’t mastered the essence of drama: that emotion arises from the dramatic conflicts. The emotion is pumped in like nitrous oxide into cream and the result is as airy and lacking in nourishment. She may know nothing about the equations which underpin physics, but she’s a diligent imitator of soap-opera. Many of the exchanges are simply lacking in drama. They are marinated in the factitiousness of melodrama, and as Orton pointed out, that’s a form for the mad. I wonder if Kirkwood is familiar with Orton, or with much else that is excellent in our dramatic tradition. To be fair to her, she’s doing what all young or at least not old writers are doing in the theatre: hanging onto the coattails of tv and script writing because that’s where the money is. Without Aeschylus, there would be no Eastenders, but the opposite isn’t true: true drama owes no debt to its debased cousin. Yet our theatres of full of the kind of bolted together inadequacy Kirkwood has written here. She can write a bit of lively dialogue. Jenny gets the best lines. She’s sarcastic and quick. The rest of characters speak some lines of tedious flatness or preposterous sentimentality. Alice attacks her sister cruelly for being thick. It’s unconvincing. Kirkwood won’t let us discover Alice’s intellectual snobbery, she rubs it in our face. When Jenny tries to seduce Henri, he responds in a ridiculously over-blown manner. Soap-opera: think up a flimsy plot-line, pump in the emotion, have characters shout at one another or wilt, hit the audience over the head with the message. Art is about educating the emotions. Soap-opera is about treating the audience as emotionally and intellectually regressed. 

At the core of the play is the death of the child, yet I doubt the audience feels much grief or pathos. Kirkwood is trying to manipulate her audience. She’s afraid of real emotion, the kind we feel when |Gloucester has his eyes gouged out or Lear is losing his senses in the storm. I suspect most youngish dramatists would benefit from a few weeks locked away with the Greeks. Sophocles doesn’t spare us. This is what you are like he says: you would kill your father and have sex with your mother if the circumstances were right. Read the Greeks for a bit and even Shakespeare feels somewhat overstated. Why? The cliché is that Greek tragedy is the tragedy of necessity, but it may be more accurate to say they intuited that our individual differences are trivial and superficial. They didn’t put stress on the individual. We are all essentially the same and we are subject to forces which we neither control nor understand. This is what it means to be human. As Pascal put it much later: “I do not know who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself, I am terribly ignorant about everything. I do  not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects about everything and itself and does not know itself any better than it knows anything else.” Drama is based on and revolves round this sense of the limits of our knowledge and capacities. Also, it’s important that the Greeks don’t flatter. They don’t say: “Look at these terrible people. You aren’t like this.” That’s the emotional pornography of sensationalist tv series and cheap films. The Greeks always say: “Look at these terrible people. This is what you are like.” 

Kirkwood flatters her audience. Of course, that’s what entertainment is for. Entertainment is debased art. Theatre is in thrall to entertainment. The films, the tv series, attract audiences of millions. A play which is wildly successful, and goes on tour might reach a million. Most plays don’t get anywhere near that. As commercialism has triumphed and installed its philistine regime, everyone has to check the “bottom line”, ie bottoms on seats. Hence the soap opera at the heart of this play.  

It's about women. “What it means to be a sister, a mother and a daughter” as the blurb puts it. Well, what it means to be those things doesn’t depend on what happened to give particles mass in the instants after the big bang, but on the kind of culture you inhabit. Just what Kirkwood is trying to get at is hard to see, but the science and the sociology don’t meld. That Jenny refuses the MMR protection is mediated by cod science, but what has that to do with the Higg’s boson? Alice is in search of it (it was discovered in 2012). Maybe Kirkwood is trying to suggest that science can’t make our moral decisions for us, but that’s too banal for words. What happens on stage is that the references to science seem to have no connection to the melodramatic action. The problem with science is you can’t write a play about it. You can write a play about scientists, like Durrenmatt’s The Physicists; but that isn’t play about physics but about social and moral responsibility. Is Alice in her superciliousness and cruelty supposed to be a portrait of the scientist? Scientists are like the rest of us, they just happen to be good at science. You can’t write a play about physics because atoms, neutrons, protons, quarks, the strong nuclear force, don’t make moral choices. Drama is about human conflict. It’s always about conflict. It’s always about power. Waiting for Godot is about power. The question about this play is: where is the essential conflict? Where is the power struggle? Our attention is dragged away from the characters to the stage business about physics. We have to think about hadrons and the Higg’s boson. Why? Perhaps Kirkwood wanted to write a play which would embrace our understanding of the universe while showing how troubled we are, but our understanding of the universe is troubled. We can’t fit gravity into the Standard Model. We don’t know what dark matter is. The Greeks and Pascal are right, we understand very little, about the universe and our own behaviour. However, understanding the universe is childsplay compared to understanding your own mind.  

Women have been subjugated for centuries. No one truly understands how this came about. We know there have been matrilineal and matriarchal societies, but quite how they were overturned is difficult to decide. The evidence isn’t sufficient. It’s right that women should cast off their subordinate status. Equality between the genders is morally requisite. The best way to attain it, is to establish equality in general. If all people encounter one another on grounds of equality, there can be no gender inequality. There’s always the danger that the fight against inequality is made use of for less high-minded ends. We make a mistake if we think a play about “women’s issues” (why shouldn’t men be concerned about childbirth and rearing?) should be judged by standards different from those we would apply to Euripides, or Ben Jonson or Arthur Miller. A play has to be judged by its dramatic quality, otherwise we risk undermining a potent means of understanding ourselves. 

What comparison could be made between this play and the best of British-Irish drama of the last hundred years. Think of some seminal works: Man and Superman, The Voysey Inheritance, The Playboy of the Western World, Juno and the Paycock,  The Long and the Short and the Tall, An Inspector Calls, A Taste of Honey, Oh What A Lovely War, Waiting for Godot, What The Butler Saw, Top Girls. Yet, it isn’t that Kirkwood is particularly bad among her contemporaries; rather British drama has sunk to a desperately low level. In decadent cultures, everything sinks, and we are fairly close to the nadir. Kirkwood doesn’t know what she wants to write about. She hasn’t felt acutely, seen and thought about what’s in her play. She’s cast around for something which will seem important, even ground-breaking. Well, the universe! Quantum physics ! But the play is about a woman whose child dies because she doesn’t get her vaccinated. This might have some dramatic traction if we witnessed her struggling against advice; but finally she makes a bad choice and the result is tragic. It’s a sad story but it isn’t drama. Jenny isn’t evil or even mildly malicious. She attends to poor advice and thinks it’s valid. Evil is interesting. Good is hard to make interesting. Cordelia doesn’t fascinate like Regan and Goneril. Mere poor judgement doesn’t make drama work. Claudius’s murder of his brother, Iago’s vile manipulations, Lady Macbeth’s insane ambition, the Birlings’ smug callousness, Dr Prentice’s sexual opportunism, these are the stuff to grab an audience’s attention. Kafka accuses Dickens of stamping “rude characterisations” on all his characters. Kirkwood makes hers cardboard cut-outs. They have no power to appal, to repel, to grab sympathy, hence the customary procedures of soap-opera: forcing in emotion where there is none.  

The play ends with a breakthrough into a parallel universe; there are many who argue this is not physics. How can we study what we don’t know exists? Physics can’t tell us what existed before the big bang because there is no evidence. As the play finishes, we are on the verge of science fiction. Maybe, if it all starts again, we can get it right next time. Is the suggestion that we need to find a parallel universe where women won’t make bad choices? If there is a parallel universe which is the one we know re-made, wouldn’t determinism mean that everything would happen as it has? The odd thing about determinism, of course, is it throws up contingency. This is the fault with this play: you leave the theatre thinking about physics not about the characters. Whatever Kirkwood was aiming at with this mish-mash, it misses the mark. I suspect the audience was unmoved by the fate of the characters and puzzled by the pseudo-scientific flummery.  

What really needs to be said, though, is what we have here is an example of the dreadful state of current UK playwriting. Theatre has to be a place where the shocking is said, where power and orthodoxy have no sway; that can’t happen when everyone is scared to death of losing their funding and under compulsion to fill the rows. Many of the world’s best plays made their first or early audiences livid. That’s what happens when writers follow their noses. Today, they have to stick their snouts in an oat sack which will be pulled away if audiences don’t like their work. In such an atmosphere there will be no more Juno and the Paycocks, Waiting for Godots, Top Girls or Loots, just soap-opera parading as real drama.  

Why Mosquitoes? Well, there’s a line about the collision of two sub-atomic particles being analogous to two of the insects crashing. The analogy is used in explanations of the LHC for idiots: colliding mosquitoes release about four trillion electronvolts of energy, protons about thirteen trillion. What matters, however, is concentration. The LHC concentrates the energy of about three flying mosquitoes into a space a trillion times smaller than a single one. There we are: the play gets us talking about electronvolts instead of the death of the child.  

When the action ends, we are treated to Bowie’s Star Man. Bowie was an entertainer. He was also a declared fascist. The song is a bit of pop culture silliness. Bowie didn’t understand much about music and much less about physics. 

The cast is excellent. They make the best of a script pulling itself to shreds. Faith Turner has the best role as Jenny and carries it off splendidly. Her acting is worth the price of the ticket. Emma Wright is very good too as Alice, but has some dreadful lines to deliver. Will Pottle is brilliant as the confused, lost, clever but falling apart Luke and Annette Holden perfect as the dotty mother living in the past and peeing on the floor.  

Good acting is always worth paying for, but real actors deserve real drama, as do good audiences. At the interval, some of the small crowd disappeared. British theatre is dying, which is the intention of the philistines. Bread and circuses, but art? Too dangerous. Richard Nixon remarked: “Stay away from the arts, they are Jewish and left-wing”. Something akin to that informs the UK Establishment today. Writers must resist, not fall for the money, the prizes and the plaudits.