By Carol Rocamora . . .
Are you longing for a play? I mean a PLAY – a big play with big ideas, a two-and-a-half hour play with substantial themes, deep emotions, and far-reaching visions? A thrilling play that stretches your imagination, challenges your intellect, touches your heart?
If so, sign up for National Theatre at Home (it’s only $10 a month) and click on Mosquitoesby Lucy Kirkwood. Sit back and have a whole world open up to you.
It takes a brave playwright to write about the abstract notions of nuclear physics – so Kirkwood makes it personal. She tells the story of two sisters – Jenny and Alice – whose lives collide like the particles in the Large Hadron Collider, which Alice, a scientist, is helping to build. The year is 2008, and the world’s largest machine of its kind has just been completed in Geneva – a herculean effort in involving 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries. Alice’s abilities come naturally – after all, her parents were scientists, and her father won a Nobel Prize (although her mother Karen insists she deserved it instead.)
So the collision of the play comes not from particles but from humans – the two sisters themselves – whose temperaments collide with a force greater than the Big Bang (which also gets discussed). Both sisters are divorced; both are parents. Alice is mother of Luke, a troubled teenager; Jenny is pregnant and terrified of medical science. Alice is the brilliant one; Jenny is the unhinged one, according to family typecasting.
But is that so? Unlike science, human behavior and relationships are not governed by laws. Jenny loses the baby (she wouldn’t get her vaccinated, her daughter dies of the measles); Alice almost loses Luke. But it’s Jenny who copes, traveling from London to Geneva to care for their demented mother. It’s Jenny who counsels Luke, bullied at school to the breaking point, who assaults a fellow student and runs away from home. It’s Jenny who consoles Alice, her distraught sister. Mosquitoes tells a powerful family story filled with humor as well as heartbreak. Olivia Colman as Jenny and Olivia Williams as Alice both offer brilliant performances; Joseph Quinn is an affecting Luke; and the entire ensemble is uniformly superb.
What makes the production so sensational is its theatricality. Under Rufus Norris’s fast-paced direction, two-and-a-half hours fly by on Katrina Lindsay’s stunning set, featuring a circular floor (like a scientific force field) fabulously lit by Paule Constable. The lighting shifts dramatically between each swift scene, as stagehands dressed in scientific garb change set and prop elements. The sisters’ scenes alternate with the non-realistic appearance of an unidentifiable character simply called The Boson (named after an elementary particle, played by Paul Hilton), who offers head-spinning visions of The Second Big Bang and other futuristic scientific theories. These abstract scenes are accompanied by flashing lights, music by Adam Cork, and sound design by Paul Arditti. The results are spectacular.
The play’s penultimate scene combines all these sensational design elements in a grand surge of light, sound, movement and energy, The Boson offers a stunning prediction of the future of the universe – when we can see 14 billions years ahead in 53 seconds. “This time we’re going to get it right,” he says, speaking of science and its predictions. Meanwhile, the Boson declares: “Whatever else, there is order.” But is there order in people’s lives? Scientists may be able to predict the death of a planet billions of years from now, but still there is the death of a baby today.
Other courageous plays have tackled huge scientific themes – like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The strength of Mosquitoes lies in the enormity of the scientific, futuristic vision juxtaposed with the deeply personal present.
Meanwhile, in the play’s final moment, with the two colliding sisters sitting back-to-back center stage, their hand touching, Kirkwood and her director offer a vision of order to our present lives. And that order is love.
Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Rufus Norris, at the Royal National Theatre (2017), now streaming on-line at ntathome.com