MARY CONWAY recommends a play linking the physicist’s quest for truth with the cosmic chaos lurking beneath the surface of four 20th-century icons
Insignificance Arcola Theatre, London 4/5
A HIT in the 1980s, Terry Johnson’s Insignificance proves its staying power in this assured and sharply paced revival from director David Mercatali.
Rich in period and cultural detail, it’s set in a New York hotel room in 1953, where the imaginary collision between four towering figures of the time occurs.
Although never named, we know them to be Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy and, although our knowledge of them may be superficial, that’s not the case with Johnson. We might think that we know these people but the truth about them is something else. These are no caricatures.
Instantly, we’re transported into the cosmic chaos beneath each fragile public persona. As Einstein declares: “Knowledge is not truth, it is merely agreement” and, just as Einstein looks beyond the known, so we are led from received opinion about them to limitless inquiry. It’s Einstein’s work by analogy.
Alice Bailey Johnson is splendid as Monroe. While never allowing her immaculate golden veneer of curves and whispers and winning smiles to crack, she seems to drag her real self not from the heart but from her very innards, with her womb bleeding of its own accord before our very eyes. When DiMaggio despairingly cries of her: “What man can make love to a wound?” we’re ahead of him and know exactly what he means.
Simon Rouse, excellent as Einstein, is aghast at the bomb his genius has unleashed and his rapport with Monroe, driven by intellect, is immediate. Her vivid dissection of his theory of relativity is a show-stopper.
Tom Mannion as the Senator and Oliver Hembrough as DiMaggio likewise shape uncompromising external stereotypes while expertly sharing with us their characters’ inner turmoil.
Insignificance is a play that certainly resonates at a time when presidents must be celebrities and while trust in public “truths” is at an all-time low.
But Johnson’s story is defined by an arbitrary carelessness with the facts and a certain frivolity and, although it has pretensions to philosophy and feeds our Einsteinian curiosity about what lies beneath the “known,” in the end it’s candy and not a work of real dramatic import.