Theatre – Ear to the Edge of Time

Venue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre
Written By: Alana Valentine
Directed By: Nadia Tass

In Ear to the Edge of Time Alana Valentine once again creates a mileau, in this case, the complex world of astrophysics, and deploys it to investigate the multi-layered nature of human endeavour with her characteristic mix of humour, probing insights, trickiness and hopefulness.

Belinda Giblin and Gabrielle Scawthorn (photo: Kate Williams).

In our seats and waiting for the opening, we gaze up at a swirling celestial panorama projected onto a partially realised dish of a radio telescope. Mesmerised, we are almost startled by the arrival of a rumpled figure and mentally pull ourselves back to earthling level. To the smallness of humanity, the vastness of the cosmos above us, and the inevitable question that follows: how do we make sense of what it means to be human?

The figure in question is Daniel Singer (a subtle Tim Walter), a young poet in search of his subject, and he seems at a loss. Perhaps he expects to be welcomed, since he has come to Parkes to meet young astrophysicist and PhD research student Martina Addeley (a remarkable Gabrielle Scawthorne). The two have been arbitrarily paired to collaborate on a poem for an anthology inspired by the sciences. By this means, Valentine brings the relationship between two great human enterprises, the Arts and Sciences, and their imperfect human agents, under her telescope.

At the heart of Valentine’s examination is the claim of science to work as a team. The individual’s ego is subordinated to the interests of collective achievement and attribution for discovery goes to the team leader. It sounds reasonable, and the young apprentices of the master sorcerers are expected to comply. But at what cost? Martina is the test case, and Daniel the recorder of her struggle to submit.

Initially, it seems as if the collaboration, put in motion by Geraldine Kell-Cantrell (a reference to Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) whose motivation is less artistic and more political, will be aborted. The door to the dome housing the gigantic instrument, is locked and neither the poet nor the affable supervisor, Stephen Sarvas (a versatile Christopher Stollery), can gain access to Martina. What they see is their own reflection in the door, and to protect her privacy, Martina disguises herself as a stray sulphur crested cockatoo, an interesting choice as the bird, intelligent and imitative, is a popular pet. When she is forced out of her tower, dogged in stance and emphatic in gesture, she announces flatly that Art and Science are not a good mix.

Martin, however, does let Daniel and the audience into her field of work, the neutron star, explaining it with ardour and clarity. We see her greatest passion lies not in the stars themselves but in the collection of data wherein lies the potential for both new discovery and proof of old theories – scientific truth-telling. Daniel, who is equally passionate about his work, and equally convinced of poetry’s potential for truth-telling, is inspired by the romance of astrophysics (his is the beautiful phrase “an ear to the edge of time”) and like Martina is searching for “the moment” among a maze of sense impressions.

Determined to win Martina over, he is surprised to be met with a different and joyful Martina on his return to Parkes. She bounces around him like Josephine the balletic kangaroo but is reluctant to reveal the source of her joy. So great is her ebullience she cannot help but give a heavy-handed clue through the phrase “doubly confident”, which Daniel, happy for Martina, innocently passes on to her supervisor. The starry script scrolls swiftly down the dish above us, as he, without asking, takes ownership of her precious data. Sarvos makes it yield up her secret – the existence of a double pulsar – to him.

Martina’s response, when he tells her of his intrusion in a falsely congratulatory tone, is to repeat in a voice unbearably painful in its stricken incredulity, “You took my data!” We watch in horror as she collapses to the ground under the weight of her grief. Sarvas has stolen her moment of discovery and made it his. When we see her next, she has returned from Bologna, a subdued figure, her wings – to hark back to the loud, brash girl we first encountered – clipped.

Singer, however, as a poet, can preserve the ugly moment of her betrayal. While Martina rejects the poem (and the publisher – a very funny Stollery – is amusingly sceptical about the profit margin), Professor Kell-Cantrell (Belinda Giblin, who also doubles as the leopard-skinned Rhoda, dispenser of folk wisdom) sees it as a useful weapon in the battle against the injustice embedded in scientific protocol. It is not just “me too” as male students also miss out on accreditation, or the disproportionate number of men who win Nobel prizes for physics as women have not been well represented in this field in the past, but the terrible crushing of the spirit endured by Martina.

The truth of the poet is not in opposition to the truth of scientific knowledge but is a means of upholding the human spirit in the pursuit of that truth. Congratulations to Valentine, the wonderfully sensitive cast and the extraordinarily imaginative setting for together creating the best theatre of 2018.

October 11-27, 2018.

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