Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 4 – Apr 23, 2022
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Violette Ayad, Jemwel Danao, Rowan Davie, Gareth Davies, Sean O’Shea, Sam O’Sullivan, Claudia Ware
Images by Prudence Upton
It was the age of Enlightenment, and the beautiful mind of Isaac Newton held volumes of pivotal information, if only they could all be transformed into ink on paper. David Williamson’s Near the Gods pays particular attention to Newton’s seminal Principia, and the arduous three-year process by which the astronomer Edmund Halley had to coax the book into materiality. A somewhat quirky work of theatre, Williamson’s narrow focus on that singular historical incident, is unexpectedly idiosyncratic, although unlikely to be widely appealing.
The soporific subject matter of Near the Gods may not feel a natural fit for the modern stage, but director Janine Watson’s detailed and nuanced handling of the play, helps ensure that the audience is able to stay the course, whether or not we are ever able to really invest, in any part of the antiquated story.
Hugh O’Connor’s production design is extremely restrained, with the rejection of any faithful-to-period renderings, proving to be a wise and elegant decision. Lights by Matt Cox, along with Clare Hennessy’s sound design, too are conceived with an appropriate sense of minimalism, able to help move the narrative along effectively, with only slight embellishments introduced during opportune moments.
Actor Gareth Davies is amusing as the mad genius Newton, adept at bringing valuable liveliness to proceedings, even though the role is written with an excess of dry reverence. Halley is played with admirable commitment by a very passionate Rowan Davies, whose determination to entertain helps keep us engaged. Also noteworthy are Violette Ayad as Mary Halley, who offers flashes of genuine emotion in an otherwise distant and stolid affair, and Sean O’Shea’s flamboyance as King Charles II is an irresistibly funny element, if not always cohesive with the rest of the show.
It is arguable that creative people are only worth their salt, when something actually comes to be, as a result of their talent. Newton was at risk of having all the brilliance kept only on the inside of his mind. So many of us hold within ourselves, great insight and perspectives, that could benefit and inspire others, if only we knew how to make tangible, all that remains mere potential. Having written well over 50 plays, the writer Williamson is clearly not lacking in capacity for expression; if only this proficiency was available to more of us.