Good writing, whether literary or scientific, tends follow the principle that everything present has a purpose. More regard for this idea will make Einstein: Master of the Universe a tighter show, and hopefully put it on a path to being much more substantial and enjoyable.
The piece is a new musical with music, book and lyrics by Jess Newman. One hundred years after the publication of physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Einstein: Master of the Universe lightly concerns itself with some of the details of his life and trials, and those of people close to him.
We start at the graduation of German-born Einstein (Scott Mackenzie) from Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, and his humiliation at being assigned a lowly job as a Patent Clerk third class in Berne. Mileva Maric (Jessica Condon), Einstein’s Serbian girlfriend and fellow student, failed to graduate despite topping her mathematics classes.
Following their relocation to Berne, we saw Einstein’s ongoing struggle to have his unorthodox work recognised. Through this, the following decades held travel, dealings with friends and rivals, lovers drifting apart, and a bunch of quite nice tunes that recall the work of composers such as the Gershwins, Bernstein, and Jason Robert Brown.
Despite how nice these tunes sounded, how good it looked, and how energetically as the bright young things of the cast sang and danced, the book of Einstein: Master of the Universe had various problems.
Some related to missed dramatic opportunities. It’s widely believed that Maric was not given due credit for the assistance she provided Einstein in the development of general relativity. In the musical, by her own words, Maric condemned herself to being a mere research assistant, asking to check Einstein’s calculations and be included in his work.
It was only acknowledged that she might have done much more in the last few lines of the piece. This robbed the audience of a substantial doubt over the nature of Einstein’s character when he could have so easily chosen to share credit. A little moral ambiguity for Einstein might also have helped to make him more well-rounded in a piece that didn’t dedicate much time to character development.
Quite simply, there wasn’t time for this. Mackenzie did a solid job of songs telling us about all of the things Einstein could see in the universe, and blah blah space-time and what he aspired to do. We spent too much time revisiting this desire either in new songs, or by reprisals of the earlier ones, without advancing the story. In the first act we didn’t get within light years of what a journalist would say is the more important question: Why? Why is this work so important? We had to wait until well into the second act to get even a minor sense of this.
In the first act though, I found myself thoroughly bored by repetition. Time passes much more slowly as you approach the speed of light, and it also feels this way when the enthusiasm you had before a show fades as disappointment steadily accumulates.
The script also lost the chance to develop relationships between characters as these were generally superficial. I didn’t get any real sense of why Maric would stay with the neglectful, workaholic, and philandering Einstein. The same goes for the romance that turned to apathy between Einstein and his next wife Else (Stephanie Adams), who didn’t even share the common bond of maths nerdery.
I also didn’t care for debate over scientific theories being presented as if it’s merely different opinions between combatants. Yes, everyone thinks their opinion on anything has value in these post-enlightenment times; Pauline Hanson is back in the federal senate and demanding Royal Commissions into Islam “a totalitarian political system … masquerading as a religion”, and the “corruption” of climate science.
I found the misrepresentation of science very misleading and, given how most of the general public don’t know how it proceeds, quite negligent, especially in a show about a great scientist.
Despite how disaffected I became over the course of the evening, as accents wandered around Europe, the singing of the chorus was lost under the music at times, and potentially humourous moments were overplayed, some quality aspects shone through.
Both Adams and Condon expressed complex emotions from being near Einstein but not truly part of his life with moving performances. As Lorentz – one of the greats of the pre-Einstein generation of physicists but largely passé by the early 2oth century – Josiah Lulham skilfully balanced pathos and humour in his song Everyone has their Time, easily one of the more illuminating and significant songs of the evening.
Certainly the show appealed to the eye. Costume design by Lucy Wilkins effectively captured turn of the nineteenth century fashions. Scenic Projection Art and Animation by Jack Crosby ensured that scene changes were slick, and assisted us in imagining life in European centres during Einstein’s time there.
On the review night the audience applauded and yelled their approval before a syllable had been uttered or a note sung. Einstein: Master of the Universe doesn’t need friends like this if it is to capitalise on the promise of its cast, creatives, and better ideas. Perhaps it needs to learn some lessons from Einstein’s life.
It needs a little critical treatment so that it will strive to become more than what it currently appears. Also, it should benefit from a better understanding of events and time, which it could use to achieve more effective dramaturgical ends.
Director: Daniel Czech Featuring: Scott Mackenzie, Jessica Condon, Stephanie Adams, Lachlan Hewson, Josiah Lulham, Daniel Cosgrove, Jordon Mahar, Mitchell Roberts, James Leone, Alice Batt, Darcey Eagle, Kaori Maeda-Judge Assistant Director / Choreographer: Nicholas Kyriacou Musical Director: Taylen Furness Set Design: Robert Smith Scenic Projection Art / Animation: Jack Crosby Lighting Design: Nick Glenn Costume Design: Lucy Wilkins Music, Book and Lyrics: Jess Newman
Einstein: Master of the Universe
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St. Kilda
Performance: Saturday 2 July 2016 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 10 July 2016
Bookings: (03) 9534 3388 or online at: www.theatreworks.org.au
For more information, visit: www.einsteinthemusical.org for details.
Image: Scott Mackenzie as Albert Einstein in Einstein: Master of the Universe – photo by Ben Fon Photography
Review: Jason Whyte