EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME
EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME, Sport for Jove and Seymour Centre at the Reginald Theatre, 13-27 October 2018. Photography by Kate Williams: above - Gabrielle Scawthorn; below - Belinda Giblin and Gabrielle Scawthorn; below again - Christopher Stollery and Tim Walter
Science is a tricky topic for a nice night’s entertainment. Such a vast and promising subject yet successful plays can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia; Proof by David Auburn (about maths) and Caryl Churchill’s A Number.
Make the topic science and poetry – on the face of it an unpromising pairing anyway – and the success rate drops to one: Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer winner, Wit. Yet that’s to reckon without our very own Alana Valentine’s uncanny way with lucid, intelligent and quick-witted telling of difficult stories.
With Ear To The Edge of Time Valentine has realised that rare thing: an absorbing, human story with its origins in uncomfortable truths and all steeped in a resolute illumination of science and poetry. It’s a significant achievement.
Just how significant was revealed in 2012 (to deafening indifference in the Australian media) when the play won the STAGE International Script Competition, from some 200 entries. The judging panel: Pulitzer winning playwrights Tony Kushner, David Lindsay-Abaire and Donald Margulies; Nobel Laureates Robert C Richardson and Frank Wilczek; and winner of the US National Medal of Science and the Franklin Medal, Dr David J Wineland.
Valentine’s play shares common ground with those listed above in that she has not simplified or dumbed down the science (radio astronomy and astrophysics) but rather does what Alexis Soloski, writing in The Guardian in 2010 suggested: “...writers should let it remain difficult, let the audience struggle a bit, allow certain principles to remain complicated and elegantly remote...”
The same can be said of poetry and the meeting of the two very human preoccupations in Ear To The Edge of Time which sheds increasingly bright light on both and so avoids what Soloski also wrote: that a friend thought of playwrights and science thus, “They get so overwhelmed by actual laws of the universe that they forget those of dramatic construction.”
Soloski also observed, “...any actual science is little more than name-checked in favour of some soap opera about the struggles of its diviner. Such a method ignores the fact that though new discoveries are inherently interesting, the same cannot be said of the discoverers themselves.”
In Ear To The Edge of Time, Daniel, a poet (Tim Walter) has been commissioned by eminent scientist Professor Geraldine Kell-Cantrell (Belinda Giblin) to contribute to a poetry anthology devoted to science. His chosen subject is a brilliant PhD student radio astronomer Martina (Gabrielle Scawthorn). She is unimpressed by his interest, indifferent to anything beyond her research data and not happy that her supervisor and director of the radio telescope site, Steven (Christopher Stollery) is adamant that she should cooperate.
The subtexts beneath this surface narrative are many and varied and symbolised in the universe pictured in rolling images. These are projected onto a telescope dish that forms the only setting on the otherwise occasionally-illuminated black, empty stage (design: Shaun Gurton, lighting: David Parker).
The first strand to come bubbling up is the toxic one of scientific discovery and theft: Professor Kell-Cantrell should be a Nobel Laureate, but her world-changing discovery was taken by a superior. (If this rings a bell it’s because Jocelyn Bell-Burnell was a postgraduate student who co-discovered the first radio pulsars, but her supervisor and another (male) researcher collected the Nobel Prize for Physics.)
In lightly fictionalising Bell-Burnell/Kell-Cantrell, Valentine makes room for Martina and Daniel to argue politics, equality, discrimination and teamwork versus the heroic individual. In their verbal sparring the two are like boxers: circling, watching, feinting, jabbing, trash-talking (politely) and getting the measure of each other.
An explosion – a human supernova – occurs when Martina suspects and then finds something extraordinary in the outer reaches of space and her supervisor “helps” her with the work. Steven is ever-supportive and when he says he’s pleased she sees how it’s about the team and she’s not going to have “a tanty”, the gasps from the audience fizz and hiss around the theatre.
What happens next is poetry and science in a logical fusion: the necessary accuracy and discipline of both endeavours are played out with heart and brain in tandem. Directed with finesse and clarity by Nadia Tass, punctuated by sound and music designer Dan Nixon, Ear To The Edge of Time is a remarkable and diverting 100 minutes.
At the beginning, Tim Walter is too enunciatedly poetic in his spouting of verse, but slowly relaxes into human form. Gabrielle Scawthorn is the central figure around which all revolve and she is spectacularly strong and subtle. Christopher Stollery takes on two cameos as well as the almost-imperceptibly unctuous Steven and is excellent; as is Belinda Giblin as the spiky-neat professor and a rough-as-guts motel proprietor.
All in all, if you love astronomy and science, you won’t be disappointed. If you can’t tell a pulsar from any other model of Nissan, you'll be eased into outer space with enthralling humanity and humour. Recommended without reservation.