ÉMILIE is an ambitious music-drama telling the tale, or trying to, of the woman who brought Isaac Newton’s Latin prose to the people, and so first popularised –and extended – his ground-breaking scientific achievements.
How magnificent to have a bold new local work traversing sweeping themes, showcasing leading historical thinkers. Most especially a little-known woman after whom both a planet and a crater on Venus have been named. Writer, composer, and director Sophie Lindsay must be applauded for her ambition.
I love what she’s tried to do. “Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them,” says Émilie du Châtelet, our heroine, “but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to [my husband] or that famed author [Voltaire]. I am in my own right a whole person.” Yes, let’s do that. The life and sparkling scientific achievements of Emilie should be more widely known. The play presented here however, while highly enjoyable, demonstrates how difficult it is to make that happen on a stage.
It’s still good theatre, but we come away knowing less about her work on gravitation and optics, and her advancement of Newtonian mechanics – the very reasons she deserves to be more widely known – than we do about Emilie’s struggles with her weight, her public, and her lovers. Especially Voltaire.
Yes, Voltaire. Émilie du Châtelet’s second-most most famous achievement is her passionate partnership with the man Victor Hugo called the soul of the eighteenth century – a man who famously thundered against royal and clerical abuse “Écrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush the infamy!”) He also advised “Paradise was made for tender hearts; hell, for loveless hearts.” But love has certainly taken the ginger out of the figure we are given here. He is not without some wit, but he lacks all the steel and the poetry that made his literary rapier thrusts so deadly.
Why would a woman like Émilie fall for this sap? Who would possibly read his poetry?
And why should history know her more for this affair than for those greater achievements? Her greatest were her conceptualisation of energy, especially kinetic energy, consanguineous with her translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton’s magisterial 1687 opus Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Wow! Imagine the mind battling to understand and develop these concepts, to discover how to put complex concepts into plain language, to resolve her own conflict ideas science’s fundamentals. Well, we do have to imagine it, because those conflicts are internal, and damned hard to show in a theatre.
The Russell Crowe film Beautiful Mind shows the problem: the main thing to know historically about Crowe’s character, John Nash, is his Nobel Prize-winning work on the mathematics of game theory. But this world-class work is mere byplay in a movie in which all the plot conflict revolves around his battles with psychosis.
Yes, it does diminish the figure portrayed.
It’s a hard enough job anyway writing biographical dramas (or bio-pics as film folk like to call them). Especially because we generally know how they end (our hero dies tragically). We also often already know the main features of a life (there goes the surprise!). And unless the life itself is drama-filled (imagine how dreary would be a biopic of stay-at-home philosopher Immanuel Kant), the writer must inject all that drama herself.
The author of over 50 plays himself — including Oedipus, Socrates, and Mahomet the Prophet — Voltaire was a master of biographical theatre. But he too may have struggled.
Some scriptwriters will twist the story to fake the drama (will Freddy Mercury get the band together one last time?). Or take the focus away from the titular character to find a more interesting conflict (would Caesar’s killers hang together, or separately?). But you do need to find the plot conflict, and dramatise it.
I’m not sure there was one here. Instead, we don’t get too far off the track of boy-meets girl, boy is banished, girl pines … Our very first scene with the heroine reinforces that this is the evening we have ahead, and no amount of ingenious (and sometimes hilarious) theatrical devices really changes it.
Beth Alexander nonetheless brings the strength to her portrayal that makes us believe she could well have done all that work while capturing the heart of Europe’s most charismatic man of letters. She makes us see why a Voltaire could have fallen for her. But the script gives too little for Justin Rogers’s Voltaire to work with in showing why she would have fallen for him. It diminishes here.
So high praise here for the ambition. And for the direction and choreography – the various tableaux work stunningly well, especially the censorious harpies played hilariously by Bronwyn Ensor and Clementine Mills. And of course for the music, brought live to the stage by musical director and violinist Peau Halapua and cellist Sarah Spence. (More live music on theatre stages please!) The music is not exactly integral to the drama, as one famous 19th-century composer insisted it should be, but it does try to bring out the inner life of our protagonists, and often succeeds.
So there is much to like. And I recommend you see it for yourself, and support it. There is a reason figures like Voltaire are still known centuries after their passing. Figures like Émilie deserved to be plucked from their shadow.
ÉMILIE is the premiere of a comedy-drama by Sophie Lindsay with original music and larger-than-life characters. See it at Q Theatre 19-23 September.
Interview with Sophie Lindsay here.
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