Wednesday, 25 October 2017
by Terry Johnson
Starry, Starry Night
Who is imagining whom in Terry Johnson's flirtatiously symbolic 1982 piece Insignificance where Hollywood, politics, science and professional sport all collide?
On an evening in 1954 in a New York hotel room, the heavy-drinking Senator (Tom Mannion) is confronting the German-born Professor (Simon Rouse), denigrating him as a "Yid".
However, the politician is shrewd enough in his small-minded way to understand the capital to be had from the celebrity scientist's attendance to promote the profile of the House Of UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings.
And after the senator temporarily leaves, whoosh! In blows the platinum blonde actress (Alice Bailey Johnson). She, in turn, is eventually pursued by her heavy-hitter, in all senses of the word, sportsman husband (Oliver Hemborough).
It is of course rather disingenuous of your starstruck reviewer, who is not even a front for anybody's organisation or cartel 😉, to leave the characters unnamed.
Except she is following the example of the playwright. For Johnson carefully keeps his toolbox of characters representative, cherry picking and jumbling details of many lives hooked in to the recognizable celebrity images who inhabit the space-time continuum in the play's Manhattan hotel room.
In this 1950s' parallel universe we cannot know if we are confronted by the spitting images of or the "real" Nobel prize winning scientist Albert Einstein, Hollywood sex bomb Marilyn Monroe and legendary sportsman Joe DiMaggio.
Meanwhile the 1950s' villain-in-chief Senator Joe McCarthy sometimes also has difficulty separating the Hollywood double from the real thing.
Are we to believe it is a biographical episode? Is it a honeytrap using a Hollywood sex symbol to force a chain reaction for the naming of names during the Red Scare?
What is significant and what is insignificant?
Originally premièred at the Royal Court directed by Lee Waters with Judy Davis, Ian McDiarmid, Larry Lamb and William Hootkins, some aspects of Insignificance now feel dated.
The concept of starry icons brought down to earth is no longer a novel one. Bio-plays and films are now all the rage. In our internet age, imagining encounters between famous people in out-of-character circumstances does not feel outrageous.
Still, Johnson's kaleidoscope still does have something to say in our times where the precarious nature of America's celebrity shop window royalty is even more apparent.
However David Mercatali's production seems uncertain and is uneven in quality.
The first act has some wavering accents and an opaque scientific (literally) Mickey Mouse demonstration which doesn't completely convince. To be fair, though, we are generations on from audiences knowing Walt Disney truly once was the conveyor of popular science to the masses, so maybe some of the double-edgedness is lost.
The cast feels much more at home with the emotional truths of the second act than the caricatural media images of the first.
However one act needs to bat against the other, politically, historically and dramatically, for the play to succeed. In short, the chain reaction doesn't consistently spark here and it's an amber light.