Bille Brown Theatre
October 13, 2018

Queensland Theatre has christened its new home theatre and Brisbane’s first corner stage with David Williamson’s Nearer the Gods, a world premiere about the politics of science and how one of the most significant advances of the Age of Enlightenment almost never happened.

Lucas Stibbard, Daniel Murphy, Rhys Muldoon and Matthew Backer. Photo © Jeff Busby

Newton’s laws of motion are described in the play as ‘the greatest leap in knowledge in the natural world we have ever been gifted’, and Nearer the Gods introduces audiences to Isaac Newton on the brink of this, his greatest discovery. The work focuses on the mammoth amount of effort and risk undertaken by young astronomer Edmund Halley (played by Matthew Backer) to wrestle these secrets of the universe from Newton (Rhys Muldoon), who at that time had become a sullen and demanding recluse driven by religious delusions. While Newton maintained that God had chosen him to decipher the Book of Revelations and reveal His true plan for the world, Halley staked his family, finances, and tenuous position at the Royal Society on Newton’s theories about the laws of motion and universal gravity. In addition to telling the story of one of humanity’s greatest scientific leaps, Nearer the Gods raises questions of faith and examines the crossroads of science and religion. As petty politics, fragile egos, and Newton’s abrasive personality jeopardise the sharing of this world-changing discovery, Halley grapples with Newton’s jealous and manipulative nemesis Robert Hooke, as well as his own doubts about God and the nature of the universe. There is minimal jargon used, but the weight and complexity of the calculations are not glossed over.

Directed by Artistic Director Sam Strong and with design by Renée Mulder, Nearer the Gods examines Newton’s life from his youth up to the publication of his Principia Mathematica, widely considered one of the most important texts in scientific history. In a world where science and religion are so often set at odds, this play shows a brilliant mind in which they co-exist and complement one another.

Matthew Backer and Colin Smith. Photo © Jeff Busby

The Bille Brown Studio has recently undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation and refurbishment, re-opening as the Bille Brown Theatre with upgraded amenities and improved accessibility for this world premiere season of Nearer the Gods. The staging of this play makes effective use of the new stage’s proportions and many entry and exit points, while carefully choreographed set changes by Movement Director Nerida Matthaei are completed by the actors onstage and integrate the transition period between scenes as part of the performance. Particularly notable is the movement of the Society members around the King to visually demonstrate the orbit of the planets, and the coordinated spinning and shifting of tables to change the setting.

The walls of the theatre slid back to reveal different set or lighting pieces, and occasionally to create an entrance or exit for the actors. Lighting design by David Walters created moments of stillness and focus with a single spotlight as well as moments of awe-inspiring beauty, casting rainbows across the room in the explanation of light refraction and illuminating the walls and roof with the glittering stars of a clear night sky. Sound design and composition by Steve Francis supported the performance in subtle ways, like the ticking of a clock in Newton’s study and the soft singing of the workers in the orphanage.

Matthew Backer and Rhys Muldoon. Photo © Jeff Busby 

There are no powdered wigs or stockinged legs here – it is explicitly established in the prelude to the work that period-accurate costuming will not be used. Instead, the performers are dressed in more modern London attire, with distinct colour palettes differentiating their role and status within the play.

Some ideas brought up in the work felt like they were left as incomplete thoughts. Newton’s former housemate revealed to Halley details of their homosexual relations – potentially a dangerous admission, as homosexuality was illegal at the time – but this is never further developed or expanded upon. Similarly, Mary Halley expressed concern that the Principia’s publication might be funded by the Royal African Company, whose income was derived from the slave trade, but this ethical stand seemed out of place with the rest of the work and the issue was not addressed thereafter.

Rhys Muldoon and Matthew Backer. Photo © Jeff Busby 

Rhys Muldoon’s agitated energy as the petulant, contrary Isaac Newton kept audience attention locked on to him, and this was balanced by Matthew Backer’s gentle but quietly determined astronomer, Edmund Halley. The two actors had a fantastic chemistry, and Backer especially had opportunity to exhibit a wide emotional range and character development throughout the work.

Newton’s arrogant and egotistical nemesis Robert Hooke was played with great pomp, aggression, and charisma by Colin Smith, and Hugh Parker was stoic as his more level-headed counterpart, Sir Christopher Wren. William McInnes was a commanding presence as King Charles II, with his booming voice and the banging of his walking stick echoing through the theatre, and Kimie Tsukakoshi was an energetic and exasperated Mary Halley. Daniel Murphy, Lucas Stibbard, and Hsiao-Ling Tang each played multiple supporting roles.

Nearer the Gods is a visually stunning production that will leave you with stars in your eyes, taking its audiences beyond the achievements of Western history’s greatest minds and exploring the petty intellectual rivalries and human fallibility behind the ideas that changed the world.

Nearer the Gods is at Bille Brown Theatre until November 3