December 2009

Back in London I had an actor friend who was one of those appallingly bright people who can do The Times, The Telegraph, and The Independent crosswords before lunchtime. One day I asked him how he coped with the tendency that comes upon directors to treat actors like idiot children.

‘Easy,’ he said, ‘I just take about twenty points off my I.Q. before I go into a rehearsal room.’

Yes, but what happens when as an actor you are playing somebody hugely much more intelligent than you, as in the case of C. McPhillamy playing the genius Neils Bohr? Unfortunately I know of no converse technique to increase the I.Q. – well alright maybe there are some yoga poses which deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain, and some people recommend a diet high in omega-3 oils. The truth remains that grappling with Schrodinger’s wave formulation, Heisenberg’s particle mechanics, and Einstein’s new dimensions of space time… the best I can do is to fake it.

I purchased and even read some of Quantum Physics for Dummies, but soon discovered I was reading beyond my comprehension. So I purchased Physics for Dummies. That was a tough read as well, and I could have gone on to buy Algebra, Mathematics, and Calculus for Dummies. But I didn’t.

I hear that Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics (which I haven’t read, although it’s on the list) makes links between eastern mysticism and modern science. Especially when it comes to proving that nothing actually exists – concepts explored in Copenhagen (the play not the climate change summit). This is West Palm Beach, a town long associated with that most useful of illusions in our illusory universe – money. The wealth of the district here is such that it’s easy to imagine that the leaves on the palm trees are $100 bills. The greatest stock market speculator of the early 20th century, Jesse Lauriston Livermore who at the height of his wealth in the mid 1920s had a personal fortune of $125 millions, used to sojourn here at just about the time that Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were doing the science that changed our world forever. The illusion of wealth and the proof of non-existence have revisited West Palm in the forms of both the general economic crisis, and the particular investment scam that Bernie Madoff perpetrated on many investors. Coincidentally Madoff’s personal wealth at the time when indeed he made off with so much of other people’s money was estimated to be the same to within $1million as Livermore’s and he had a place here too.

I saw an excellent production The Voysey Inheritance at the Caldwell Theatre in Delray Beach just down the road, written in the early 1900s adapted by David Mamet, dealing with a precisely similar banking deception. I mention it here because the time correspondence of the dates of The Voysey Inheritance and of Copenhagen, and between Livermore’s wealth before he lost it and Madoff’s before he was exposed – flirt within an 80 to 90 year span. And 80 to 90 years – 84 years actually – is the length of one full period of Uranus, planet of revolution, disruption, chaos, and other things too. The stock market crash of ’29 plus 84 would give us the year 2013 – and should we notice that the Mayan calendar says a lot about the 21st of December 2012?

Apart from doomsday, another concern when juggling a dense text, ethics, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, and the sub-atomic world, is playing a character whose name is Bohr. They call him Bore – Crashing Bore. But I am delighted to report the production has been well received. People seem absorbed in the human story and prepared to listen attentively through some of the more challenging passages. “…and the uncertainty comes, not as you claim, from its indeterminate recoil when it’s hit by an incoming photon…” or, “…let’s see, the scattering cross-section of the mean free path would be about 6 times 10 to the minus 24…” for example.

The fact that this production is viable at all is due to our director and designers. The Palm Beach Drama Works theatre is a small space, the auditorium seats 84, and the stage is wider than deep. We have a spare, lean set with Bauhaus references. Our lighting and sound plots help immeasurably in charting us through sequences in the text. And full kudos to our director Barry Lewis, who took the time to go through the play with as fine a tooth attention as our non-science minds could manage.

I think directing is the hardest job to do well in all theatre. I mean to do really well. A lot of people are pretty good at it, and a lot of people are not. But rare indeed is a director whose expertise matches the vision of the author. To be a really gifted director, you have to know something about acting, design, production, publicity and all the rest of it. It helps if you’ve done some of these jobs, but crucially your function is to guide and release good work in others.

Here’s one of my favorite director stories:

John Moffat – a distinguished British actor, once played Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre in London. The production was directed by Ingmar Bergman. For the first three days Bergman said nothing to John. Nothing at all. John began, as actors can so easily, to feel insecure. He was sitting in the canteen having a solitary lunch, when Bergman approached him. The dialogue went like this:

Bergman: May I join you?

John: Yes, of course (thinking, Oh God he’s going to sack me)

Bergman sits. There is a silence.

Bergman: How long have you been an actor?

John: (Here it comes) I don’t know… about 25 years I suppose.

Another silence.

Bergman: Ah yes… I can see 25 years skill in your work.

Exit Bergman.

Nice isn’t it? Scandinavian, minimal, and above all, effective.

“I would have done anything for him.” Said John.